Monday, November 26, 2012

Pulpit, Meet Brick Wall

There’s a cartoon in my files.  The caption reads “Preaching 101.”  The image is of a preacher standing behind a pulpit situated directly in front of a brick wall.  Every preacher feels like that from time to time.  I learned on Sunday that not only preachers feel this way.

I was greeting people in the foyer of the church after the early service.  The sermon was the last of a series I’ve been doing on David’s life and faith.  I felt like I had offered a stirring and challenging call to “a deep and abiding relationship with the Lord God Almighty in our best moments and in our worst moments too.  It’s about relationship—whole-hearted, sold out, give and take, listen, pray, and respond, day in and day out relationship with this mysterious, sovereign, large, unpredictable God of the Bible whose love makes the sea look shallow and whose grace makes the world’s greatest philanthropist look like a cheapskate.”  It was stirring and challenging to me anyway.  So one of our most committed followers of Jesus shook my hand and said, “Good sermon … but it probably won’t do any good.”  Pulpit, meet brick wall. 

What’s a preacher to do?  We can’t just give up—even if it feels like we’re making all the progress of using an ice pick to sculpt a granite statue.  God called us preachers to this, right?  “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).  This is our job—in my mind anyway, our most important job.  So I guess we just keep at it, trusting that God’s word always gets something done whether we can see immediate evidence or not, trusting that some of the seed will fall on fertile soil and produce an abundant crop in God’s good time.  No wonder Paul threw the word “patience” in his admonition to us preachers.

We rarely see quick results, but I’ve been at this well over 30 years, and the crop does come in.  Sometimes in people and places you’d least expect.  So, let’s keep at it, brothers and sisters.  Even if it’s not doing anybody any good that we can see, it’s at least doing more good in us than we may realize.  There’s a story attributed to the Jewish author, Elie Wiesel.  The story came to mind when our church member offered his commentary on my sermon.

A just man comes to Sodom hoping to save the city.  He pickets.  What else can he do?  He goes from street to street, from marketplace to marketplace, shouting, “Men and women, repent.  What you are doing is wrong.  It will kill you; it will destroy you.”  They laugh, but he goes on shouting, until one day a child stops him.  “Poor stranger, don’t you see it’s useless?”

“Yes,” the just man replies. 

“Then why do you go on?” the child asks.

“In the beginning,” he says, “I was convinced that I would change them.  Now I go on shouting because I don’t want them to change me.”

Preach the word, brothers and sisters, in season and out of season.  God is doing more in others than you can see just now.  And just as important, God is working that word into you.


By the way, if you’re interested in reading the sermon that “probably won’t do any good,” you can find it here: By the way, if you’re interested in reading the sermon that “probably won’t do any good,” you can find it here:  Click on media > Sermon Archives > Nov 25, 2012

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pilgrim Faith

A few years ago, with a desire to learn more about the original Pilgrims, I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, Mayflower (New York: Viking, 2006).  What a great, great book!  It read more like a novel than a history.  Philbrick treats the Pilgrims with respect and honesty—as real people in a harsh, dangerous, and deadly world.  And he documents their Puritan faith with respect and honesty too.

Here at Thanksgiving 2012, I thought some of you might enjoy three brief vignettes from the book that express the Pilgrims’ theology and faith.  It’s a bit of window into how they understood God and His work amid the sorrows and joys of their lives.  Here goes:


In the fall of 1620, the Mayflower’s ability to steady herself in a gale produced a most deceptive tranquility for a young indentured servant named John Howland.  As the Mayflower lay ahull, Howland apparently grew restless down below.  He saw no reason why he could not venture out of the fetid depths of the ‘tween decks for just a moment.  After more than a month as a passenger ship, the Mayflower was no longer a sweet ship, and Howland wanted some air.  So he climbed a ladder to one of the hatches and stepped onto the deck.

Howland was from the inland town of Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire, and he quickly discovered that the deck of a tempest-tossed ship was no place for a landsman.  Even if the ship had found her own still point, the gale continued to rage with astonishing violence around her.  The shriek of the wind through rope rigging was terrifying, as was the sight of all those towering spume-flecked waves.  The Mayflower lurched suddenly leeward.  Howland staggered to the ship’s rail and tumbled into the sea.

This should have been the end of him.  But dangling over the side and trailing behind the ship was the topsail halyard, the rope used to raise and lower the upper sail.  Howland was in his mid-twenties and strong, and when his hand found the halyard, he gripped the rope with such feral desperation that even though he was pulled down more than ten feet below the ocean’s surface, he never let go.  Several sailors took up the halyard and hauled Howland back in, finally snagging him with a boat and dragging him up onto the deck.

When Bradford wrote about this incident more than a decade later, John Howland was not only alive and well, but he and his wife, Elizabeth, were on their way to raising ten children, who would, in turn, produce an astounding eighty-eight grandchildren.  A Puritan believed that everything happened for a reason.  Whether it was the salvation of John Howland or the death of the young sailor, it occurred because God had made it so.  If something good happened to the Saints, it was inevitably interpreted as a sign of divine sanction.  But if something bad happened, it didn’t necessarily mean that God disapproved; it might mean that he was testing them for a higher purpose (pp. 32-33).

Not everyone fared as well as John Howland.  One of the leaders, William Bradford had to bury his wife (p. 77):

William Bradford’s wife died when she fell from a moored ship in the harbor.  Some conjecture the death and loneliness she experienced may indicate that her death was a suicide.  No one knows for sure.

Even if his wife’s death had been unintentional, Bradford believed that God controlled what happened on earth.  As a consequence, every occurrence meant something.  John Howland had been rescued in the midst of a gale at sea, but Dorothy, his “dearest consort,” had drowned in the placid waters of Provincetown Harbor.

The only clue Bradford left us about his own feelings is in a poem he wrote toward the end of his life.

Faint not, poor soul, in God still trust,
Fear not the things thou suffer must;
For, whom he loves he doth chastise,
And then all tears wipes from their eyes.


And then this from Philbrick’s description of the unfortunate Indian wars which the Pilgrims fought some years after they had settled (p. 300):

Two days after slaughtering Pierce and his company, Canonchet and as many as 1,500 Indians attacked Rehoboth.  As the inhabitants watched from their garrisons, forty houses, thirty barns, and two mills went up in flames.  Only one person was killed – a man who believed that as long as he continued to read the Bible, no harm would come to him.  Refusing to abandon his home, he was found shot to death in his chair—the Bible still in his hands.


So there you have it: three brief stories from Pilgrim life that express something of their theology and faith.  And in the midst of all the hardship and struggle, all the sickness and death, one thing stood out: they were thankful people.  They took seriously the Bible’s admonition from 1 Thessalonians 5:16 — “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; and in all things give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”  If we’re going to learn something from them, let’s learn that.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thankful for Jesus

In this season of Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Jesus—Savior, Lord, Friend, Refuge, Strength, Peace, Joy, and the Lover of my soul.  I’m thankful for Jesus.

I’m thankful for His incarnation—that the Word would become flesh and dwell among us; that Jesus would leave the glory and safety of heaven to walk this broken earth with sinful people like me; that Jesus would condescend to us and enter our world through a virgin’s womb; that Jesus would obey the Father and enter this world when he knew His mission would take Him to the cross; that Jesus would subject himself to the same temptations we face and yet never sin even once.  I’m thankful for the incarnation.

I’m thankful for His cross—that Jesus would endure the beatings, the insults, and the nails for the likes of me; that Jesus would be humiliated before the world that He might save the very world that put Him on the cross; that Jesus would bear the sins of the world in His body (were not my sins alone too much to bear?); that Jesus would die so that I could live.  I’m thankful for the cross.

I’m thankful for His resurrection—that on the third day Jesus came forth from the grave alive and well; that death and the grave could not hold Him for long; that Jesus is a living Lord who can hear our prayers, intercede in our behalf, and continue His work in the world through His Holy Spirit and His church; that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and that if I believe in him, I keep on living with him in heaven even when I die; and that because He was raised, He will also raise my body on the last day.  I’m thankful for the resurrection.

I’m thankful for His friendship—that He never leaves me or forsakes me; that He forgives me when I sin, finds me when I lose my way, and restores me when I fail Him; that He walks with me and talks with me; that He counsels me and convicts me and encourages me; and that His love will never let me go.   I’m thankful for His friendship.

I’m thankful for Jesus.  I want to love Him with all my heart and soul and mind and strength.  And while I can never be Him, I want to be like him.  In her book, My Hearts Cry, Anne Graham Lotz titles the chapters in her book with the very qualities of Jesus I want to be evident in my life: more of His voice in my ear, more of His tears on my face, more of His praise on my lips,  more of His death in my life, more of His dirt on my hands, more of His hope in my grief, more of His fruit in my service, more of His love in my home, more of his nearness in my loneliness, more of His courage in my convictions, more of his answers to my prayers, more of His glory on my knees, more of His grace in my relationships.  And perhaps when such qualities show up in me, my thankfulness for Jesus will be more than words.

I’m thankful for Jesus: who He is, what He’s done for me; what He does for me; and what He will do for me forever—for me!  Who am I that He would take notice of me?  Who am I that He would love me and care for me and save me and walk with me and want me to spend eternity with Him?  I don’t understand it, but I believe it.

 And at Thanksgiving and all year long, may I never cease to be amazed by it all!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thankful for My Oldest Grandchild

It was a 15-hour nightmare that began on a January Sunday afternoon in 2002.  The phone rang.  It was our son, Nathan.  “We’re on our way to Children’s Hospital,” he said in a bit of panic.  “Noah’s been sick, having a hard time breathing.  The doctor took an X-ray of his chest and thinks he sees a tumor up against his windpipe.  He’s sending us right now to Children’s.  Will you meet us there?”  They had a two hour drive from Jonesboro, so we waited about an hour before we headed that way.

It was a quiet drive to Little Rock—not much talking, just a few tears and lot of quiet praying.  Noah was born in August.  He had been conceived out of wedlock.  When I first heard of the pregnancy, I wondered if adoption would be the best route for two unmarried kids.  Would it be the most loving thing for the baby?  I thought it might.  But they elected to keep the baby and even though at this point Noah had only been in our lives for about five months, we couldn’t imagine life without him.  But keeping Noah was no easy thing for his parents.  I don’t know how many late night calls we received from our son: “Noah’s crying and we can’t get him to stop.”  It was a tough time.  My son was trying to finish college and hold down pretty close to a full-time job.  Nathan and his wife were kids trying to raise a kid.  Everybody in the house was exhausted, and when Noah kept them up at night, it was just almost too much to take.

So as if there wasn’t enough stress in the family, now this tumor.  We met at the hospital.  The doctors put Noah in the ICU immediately, looking at surgery the next morning.  We took turns through the night staying in ICU with Noah.  I remember standing over that little kid in that ICU bed.  He looked so helpless, so lifeless, a tube here and a tube there.  “Please, God,” I pleaded.  “Give him a break.  There’s been so much trial and trouble with his mom and dad already, please don’t add to the burden.  I don’t know how much more they can take.  You can fix this, God.  Please, please, fix this.  Heal this little boy.”  And I wasn’t the only one praying.

There wasn’t much sleep to be had that night for any of us.  And by the time the sun began to stream through the waiting room windows, we had all kind of steeled ourselves for what we anticipated would be a long day.  We were waiting for the doctor to come in and tell us the plan.  About 9:30 or so, a couple of doctors entered the waiting room: “McCallum family?”  We circled around the doctors.  “Good news,” they announced.  “After studying the X-rays we believe your son has no tumor.”  They went on to explain why the doctor in Jonesboro thought he did.  So they answered our questions, left the room, and we collapsed in gratitude.  If we’d have had the energy to jump for joy, we would have.  We were certainly jumping on the inside.

I was struck in those moments about how hard it is to be to effusive in gratitude in a room where others would not be getting good news that day.  Though this wasn’t a miracle healing—there never was a tumor in the first place—we still believed that God had been kind to us that day.  And though one’s thanksgiving is tempered by the hardships of others whose children may not even leave that hospital alive, we were thankful, thankful to the bone.

And after contemplating through the night what it might be like to never see Noah grow up, our gratitude was deepened all the more.  It’s a gratitude we’ve carried across these eleven years of his life.  It’s a gift to throw the football with him, a pleasure to watch him play whatever sport is in season, a joy when the phone rings and his name is on the caller ID, and a lot of fun to talk Razorback and Cowboys football with him.  It was a thrill to baptize him when he gave his life to Jesus.  And to think that such wonderful things might never have been … well, I’m just thankful to God that they have been.

God has since blessed Dayna and me with five grandchildren.  We love them all.  We can’t imagine life without a single one of them.  But for a few hours in January of 2002, we did think about life without Noah, and it was a bitter thing to contemplate.  So in this season of Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for my oldest grandchild, Noah Scott McCallum.  May his years be many and meaningful.  May he make much of Jesus in however many years God gives him.  And whether those years be many or few, I will be thankful for every one.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Thankful for My Calling

I guess there’s some kind of a plan somewhere.  If you are a Facebooker then you’ve probably noticed a number of people posting something like this: “Day 3—I’m thankful for my family who loves me no matter what.”  “Day 7—I’m thankful for my job and the people with whom I work.”  I must have missed the “give thanks memo.”  Really, it’s a great idea.  This day by day sifting through your life for nuggets of gratitude brighten your day, stir a bit of wonder, and deepen your faith.  It’s all good.

I don’t know whether it’s Day 12 or Day 20, but on this day I want to give thanks for my calling.  On a June morning in 1974, I was sitting in a worship service at Baptist Hill, near Mt. Vernon, Missouri.  Just out of high school, I was working hard trying to earn money for college, so I couldn’t get the whole week off to go to camp.  I did drive up on my day off.  Am I ever glad I did!  Jack Scott was the preacher in the morning service.  I have no idea what his text or topic was that morning.  But I distinctly remember the invitation time at the conclusion of his sermon.  Well, I remember one line of it anyway.  After inviting young people to put their faith in Jesus, Preacher Scott said, “For some reason, I feel compelled to say that I think the Lord is calling someone to the ministry today.”  And no sooner were those words out of his mouth than I felt the Lord’s hand on my shoulder and His whisper in my heart, “He’s talking about you.  I am calling you.”

I wish I could say that this was the culmination of a long process of God wooing me to ministry, but it was not.  I wish I could say I was prepared for this kind of encounter with God, but I was not.  I wish I could say that I had heard God’s whispers plenty of times in my young life, but I cannot.

All I can say is that I just knew it was God’s voice.  I just knew it.  And from that moment forward, while there have been a few occasions over the decades when I had a few doubts about whether I wanted to be in ministry I have never doubted for a minute that God wants me in ministry.   What’s odd about it is that as I was headed off to college two months later, I had done a lot of thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up, and ministry never crossed my mind.  And it probably wouldn’t have were it not for God’s whisper to my heart that bright June day.  My calling was a God-thing.  It wasn’t a mama-thing or a church-thing or a fallback-thing because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.  It was a God-thing.  The only person who was ever in my ear about ministry was God, and He didn’t have to tell me twice.

In Baptist circles one often hears people talk about “surrendering” to the ministry, as if ministry is the last thing they’d ever want to do but God finally twisted their arm hard enough to make them say “Uncle!”  It wasn’t like that with me.  It didn’t feel like “surrendering.”  It felt like “call.”  It felt like “opportunity.”  It felt like “joy.”  I guess I wasn’t smart enough to contemplate how unworthy I was and am of such a calling.  Maybe the whisper was just so much stronger than the voices within me and from others that would have tried to talk me out of it.

Anyway, the rest is history.  Serving God in ministry has put me in the path of some wonderful people who have added so much to my life.  It has put me in the church of the living God.  It has put me at the side of deathbeds and graves.  It’s put me at the wedding altar and the maternity ward and in the baptism waters.  It’s put me with people at serious crossroads in their lives where what I said made a difference in the path they chose.  It’s put me in the study and behind pulpits and lecterns.  It’s put me on mission fields around the world.  It’s put me in circumstances that had me whooping it up with joy, and it’s put me in circumstances that have had me in tears and fussing with God on behalf of others why He does some of the things He does.  It’s been quite a trip.

There have been seasons, especially of late, when I wondered if there could possibly be anything else I could do for a living.  After over 30 years of facing weekly deadlines, being up to my neck in death and grief, feeling pressure to manage growing churches, dealing with things that are way over my head, and never managing myself all that well in terms of getting out from under it enough along the way, a fellow gets tired—not just tired in ministry but tired of ministry.    

And I race to the Lord and say, “Haven’t I done enough? I’m tired, Lord.  I don’t know how much more of these pressures I can take.   Can’t I please do something else for a change?”  I am tempted in such times to mope a bit, feel sorry for myself, and be a little irritable and resentful about the next demand that comes my way.  I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that in these later years of my ministry there are times when I just want to quit. 

But then it comes once again: that same voice, that same whisper I heard at Baptist Hill on that June day in 1974: “I am calling you.”  Only now there’s an additional word or two: “Now get back to work.  And remember, we’re in this together and I am with you always.”

Thank you, Lord, for my calling.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Post-Election Prayer

Since I posted an election eve prayer, I thought it would be the symmetrical thing to do to post a post-election prayer as well.  On the morning after, half the country is ecstatic; half the country is something of a combination of shocked, distressed, sad, and/or downright bitter.  It's important that Christians keep perspective, don't you think?  Whether your candidate won or lost, it's important to keep God and His word in view.  I hope this prayer does that.


We praise you, our Father, that you are the God of the universe: Creator, Sustainer, King, the One who was and is and is to come.  Holy!  Holy!  Holy!  The whole earth is full of your glory!  That was true yesterday.  That is true today.  That will be true in every tomorrow and for all eternity.

We praise you that you put rulers in their places, sometimes for blessing and sometimes for judgment, and that you blow them down when they have served your purpose.  We praise you that you can turn the heart of kings to this way or that whether they want it or not, whether they realize it or not.

We praise you that we live in a country where we can vote for our leaders.  America’s people have spoken.  But even more, you have spoken.  Help those of your people who are disappointed today to remember that.

There is much about your sovereignty we don’t understand.  But we can understand this: you call us to pray for our leaders and those in authority.  You call us to prayer whether we like our rulers or not, whether we support our rulers or not.  Make of your church a people of prayer.  We pray that our president and congress will be large people with large character who will address large issues.  Help them to seek your direction, make wise decisions, and work in a bipartisan way to solve America’s many problems.

In the meantime, help your church to be about your business: loving our neighbors and our enemies; proclaiming the crucified, resurrected Christ; serving those in need; acting as seasoning, preserving salt that creates in our neighbors a thirst for you, and as the light that gives our world a glimpse of your glory.  Help us to be large disciples with large character and large hearts who worship a large God.

And as we seek to be your church in nation that doesn’t much like us anymore, remind us of our greatest hope: no matter how things look from day to day and year to year, in the end, you win and your people from every nation, tribe, and tongue will sing your praise around your throne forever.

Monday, November 5, 2012

An Election Eve Prayer

This is a prayer (slightly tweaked) that I prayed in worship on Sunday.  Though I find nothing remarkable about this prayer, some of our church family wanted a copy of it and expressed a desire that I post it on my blog.  Prayers like this were doubtless prayed in all kinds of church across our country on Sunday.  But if this prayer stirs you to add your prayers alongside it, then that's a good thing.


 We come before you on this Sunday before a national election, our Father, and seek your face.  Between the tragic events in 2001, the two wars that followed, the economic collapse in 2008, and storms like Katrina and Sandy, we have yet to recover our bearings.  But the truth is we lost our bearings long before 2001.  We need you.  We need your favor.

Perhaps we are presumptuous to ask for your favor when we continue to take the life of children in the womb in the name of reproductive freedom.  Perhaps we are presumptuous to ask your favor when we seek to redefine marriage rather than reaffirm marriage as you intended it to be.  Perhaps we are presumptuous to ask your favor when instead of pulling together to solve our problems we continue to press divisions of race and class, ethnicity and political party.  Perhaps we are presumptuous to ask your favor when our culture seems to try to put as much distance between us and you as we can: ashamed to mention your name, embarrassed to call upon you for help, afraid to say the name of Jesus on public property lest someone take us to court.  Perhaps we are presumptuous to ask your favor when your church looks more like the world than it does like Christ, when your church is selfish toward those in need and hateful toward those who disagree with us.  Perhaps we are presumptuous to ask your favor.

And yet we ask for it anyway, not on the basis of who we are but on the basis of who you are—Almighty God, Lord of the nations, lover of our souls, slow to anger, full of mercy, quick to forgive when we own our sin and repent of it.  Please forgive our nation for our sins.  Please forgive your church for our sins.  Stir your church to a deeper faith, a robust commitment, and a broader love.  Remember your pledge to Abraham that you would spare even Sodom had you found ten righteous people in the city.  Please help your church in America to be righteous without being self-righteous and bold without being brash.  Help us, as your prophet Micah declared, to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with you.  Revive us, Lord.

Give us wisdom as we elect our leaders and vote on issues this week.  Thank you for the privilege of casting our ballot.  Thank you for these freedoms.  Thank you for those who have paid the highest price to make this so.  And give us peace no matter who wins on Tuesday.  Remind us that no ruler comes to power without your sovereign say so.  Remind us that our nation and our world are in your hands and that your hands are good, that you have a plan and are working your plan.  Your will be done this week.  Our hope is in you, Lord, not our government.  We trust you.

But whatever happens and whomever is elected, may our soldiers be able to come home soon from Afghanistan, may the unemployed find new opportunities for work so they can be self-sufficient again, may the poor receive the assistance they need, may Hurricane Sandy’s victims find relief, and may our government leaders work together for the common good of us all.  We need your favor, Lord, because without you, we're sunk.  

In Jesus' name, Amen.


That's the prayer.  In retrospect I wish I had added one more thing—especially with all the rancor this election has stirred: Lord, when the ballots are counted and the results are in, please help the candidates to win with grace or lose with grace.  And help their supporters be good sports about it all and prayerful for the victor.  Amen.

Maybe this added brief petition is really the test of our faith.  You think?