Monday, June 24, 2013

Wise Guys

I’ve been praying through the Psalms for the last several months and had such a good time that I thought I’d go for the Proverbs too.  So that’s what I’m doing in my daily devotions: praying through Proverbs, one chapter a day.  As I was praying through chapter 4 last Friday, I felt compelled to give God thanks for the wise people He has put in my life across the years.  Those people never said much.  I doubt they considered themselves all that wise.  And I’m not sure they had a clue some word they said to me would be just the wisdom I needed at the time.  But that’s the way God has worked wise people into my life.  And what a blessing!

You want to hear something funny?  Not three hours after praying through Proverbs 4 and thanking God for putting wise people in my life, God did it again.  We were having a party at our house on Friday night, and I needed to borrow about ten chairs and a six-foot table from the church to provide adequate sitting for our meal.  I got the chairs loaded, but had a hard time with the table.  I drive an Equinox.  It has a hatch, but I couldn’t get the table in deep enough to close the hatch all the way.  No problem, right?  I’d hauled a few other times with the hatch ajar.  So I pulled out of the church parking lot and turned down Central (the busiest street in our city).  I didn’t make it 200 feet till the hatch flew up and the table flew out.  Thankfully, one of our church members, Gary Brown, was behind me.  He stopped, preventing an accident.  And by the time I got back to the scene, Gary had moved the table off the street.  Dang, that’s a sturdy table—not a scratch on it (this is in case the church property committee reads this).  No, really, not a scratch.  Gary followed me to my car.  I said, “You know, I wish they made the Equinox about four inches longer.”  And Gary said, “Did you try to move your front seats up?”

“Uh … no.”

“Let’s move your front seat forward.”

He did and miracle of miracles, it fit right in there.  I felt like an idiot.  I said, “Gary, God gave me some smarts in some things, but I’m a total bust on things mechanical.”  I needed Gary’s wisdom in that moment, and God provided it.  And he didn’t even treat me like the idiot I was.  I suspect he just had pity.

But God has always done stuff like that for me—put people with wisdom I need in the right place at the right time.  These things aren’t coincidences; these things are providence.  And across the years I’ve held on to those tidbits of wisdom people have provided me along the way.  Some of them have been face to face; some of them have been in books.

“Let’s move your front seat forward.”  Now, I can’t wait to find something to haul just to look smart for a change.

“Things are never as bad as they seem or as good as they seem.”  Has always helped me keep perspective.

“A woman doesn’t want you to fix her problems; she just wants you to listen.”  Still trying to get that one down.

“Pick your battles carefully.”  This helps in parenting, marriage, pastoring, and most everything else.

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”  This helps me measure my words.  I should pay more attention to this bit of wisdom.

“You’re here now.”  Years ago, when I was agonizing over my move to Hot Springs, a friend said those three words (well, four not counting the contraction) and God used that to settle my heart.  In just the past few months, this bit of wisdom was amplified for me when I read Jim Eliot’s words, “Wherever you are, be all there.”  For someone like me whose mind is often in the clouds, I really need to remember this.

“When everything is coming your way, you’re in the wrong lane.”  Sorry about that.  That’s from Larry the Cable Guy and I just think it’s funny … and sometimes even true.

“Believe half the criticism and half the praise and you’ll stay on an even keel.”  This helps me stay humble yet confident.

“The difference between just any word and the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  Mark Twain said that.  He should know.  He was pretty good with words.  I think about that a lot as I preach and teach.  Twain also offered these wise words, “When angry, count to ten.  When very angry, cuss.”  Well, maybe there are wiser ways to respond to one’s anger.

“A pastor needs the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.”  J. H. Jowett said that. and man, is it both wise and true.

I could go on.  I could quote any number of Proverbs or even some of the sayings of Jesus.  After all, Proverbs affirms more than once that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."  One of the great things about God is that when we reverence Him and listen for His voice, He can drop a little wisdom on us from any number of sources.  Socrates regarded himself as the wisest man in Athens because he alone knew how little he knew.  Socrates was on to something there.  An awareness of what we don’t know keeps us open to learn, open to profit from and appreciate the wisdom God gives us through others.

I’ve shared a few wisdom bites that have been good for me?  What is one of your favorite bits of wisdom you’ve gathered along the way?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Faithful Through All Generations

I’ve been baptizing people for over 32 years.  I’m sure I could find the number if I wanted to dig it out, but I know that number is near 1,000 and probably more.  Some of those baptisms stand out. 

It’s a powerful moment to stand over the deathbed of eleventh-hour converts to Christ, pour water over them, announcing the words, “Buried with Christ in baptism, raised to walk in a brand new life.”  That’s been my privilege a number of times over the decades.  And though these folks don’t have long to live on earth, baptism declares that death loses and life wins.  Baptism declares that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, His followers will also be raised to life eternal.  That’s a powerful promise no matter when you are baptized; it’s more powerful yet when the beady, bloodshot eyes of Death are staring you in the face.

Baptizing hardened sinners is a thrill too.  I’m talking about those folks who arched their backs and dug in their heels when it came to God.  I’m talking about folks who at one point in their lives said, “There is no God!”  And folks who said, “Some people need God, but I don’t.”  And folks who said, “God is not going to tell me what to do.”  When people like this come to Christ after years of being loved and prayed for by the church, well, their baptism deepens the faith of believers and stirs shouts of joy to our holy, loving God who is slow to anger, full of mercy, and gives people time to repent.  It’s pretty special to baptize folks like this.

But, you know, maybe the baptisms that have meant the most to me (and it may sound kind of selfish) have been the baptisms of my children and my oldest two grandchildren.  I’m thinking about that because this past Sunday I had the high privilege of baptizing my eight-year-old granddaughter, Reese.  In spite of having a great pastor Reese loves dearly, she asked me to perform the baptism.  She and her family are part of a church plant called the Journey Campus of Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  Their church meets in the Student Union at Arkansas State University.  Needless to say, there is no baptistery, so they bring in a cattle trough, fill it with warm water, have the candidates sit in the water, and then baptize them accordingly.  It’s pretty cool.  And it’s even cooler when my granddaughter Reese is the one in the water.

I suppose the thing that touches me most deeply is seeing God’s word and promises come true before my eyes.  I’ve been praying through the Psalms for several months now, and one phrase that keeps showing up along the way is this one: “Your faithfulness continues through all generations” (Ps. 119:90).  I don’t think I had the same kind of appreciation for that in my younger years than I do as a man who’s got fifty-six years behind him.  Baptizing my children should have brought that home to me, but it really didn’t.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s because I was an on-duty parent and busy with those responsibilities on top of everything else.  The busy-ness of life can lead parents to miss the deep sacredness of certain moments in the lives of our children.  Even though we’re present, we don’t always lay hold of the full meaning of it. 

But it’s different when you’re a grandparent.  In some ways it’s even more satisfying to see your adult children raising their children to be followers of Christ.  And what makes that even better is that for our adult children following Jesus and commitment to His church is not a convenience thing or ritual thing; it’s a life thing.  It’s deep with them.  It’s not just something they do; it’s who they are … and now who they are training their children to be.  And they couldn’t’ do that nearly as well if they hadn’t wisely chose life-partners who share the same love and devotion to Christ and His church. 

“Your faithfulness continues through all generations.”  I’m grateful that when I look back, I’ve been on the receiving end of that faithfulness through the faith of parents and grandparents.  And I’m grateful that now I’m seeing that faithfulness worked out into the future through my children and grandchildren.  And here’s the deal: this didn’t come about because my parents or my wife and I were such great Christians.  We’ve got our flaws and inconsistencies like everyone else.  No, it’s not because we are good but because God is great, not because we did everything right but because God does all things well, not because we were special but because God is faithful—faithful to His word, faithful to His promises, faithful to His people.  “Your faithfulness continues through all generations.”

I’m just sorry it took me almost fifty-seven years to appreciate that.


P.S. The Journey Campus asks all who are baptized to share their story via video just prior to their baptism.  Here's a link to Reese's video.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Ouch!  This one really hurts.  A 2012 Gallup poll rated the “honest and ethical standards” of 22 different yet common vocations.  Which vocation do you think came in first?  Nurses—85% of respondents ranked nurses as “high to very high” in matters of honesty and ethics. 

God bless nurses.  They are often up to their elbows in bed pans and buttocks.  They have to give spit baths.  They deal with patients who are not at their best, people who can be pushy, demanding, and ungrateful.  They deal with busy doctors who don’t always respond quickly.  While they usually show up at the bedside bearing helping hands, they also show up bearing needles and IVs and catheters they have to stick in their patients.  God bless nurses.  No way I could do what they do.  But the most honest vocation?  “I’ll be right back to take care of that.”  “The doctor will be by in a few minutes.”  “You can start having ice chips this afternoon.”  “You’re going to like the jello.”  Really?

Also high on the “honesty and ethics” scale are doctors and dentists.  I know many fine doctors and dentists—incredibly bright men and women who truly care about the people they serve, and they seek to do their very best.  But do they always tell the truth?  “I’m sure this medicine will fix you right up.”  “It’s definitely not cancer.”  “I’ll call you with the test results on Tuesday.”  “This won’t hurt a bit.”  “I will see you at 2:00.”  “Just one more little touch with the drill will finish this up.”  Yeah, right.

Another vocation that’s near the top is pharmacists—75% of respondents ranked them “high to very high” in honesty and ethics.   I get this one.  As long as a pharmacist gets the right medicine in the right bottle with the right label to the right person and charges a fair price, how can a pharmacist be anything but honest and ethical?  Plus, if things don’t go right they can always blame the doctor.  No beef here.

Other vocations high on the list are engineers, cops, and college professors.  Engineers better be right or buildings could fall down, bridges could collapse, airplanes fall out of the sky, vehicles catch fire, and property line disputes could reignite Hatfield and McCoy feuds all over the country.  And if you can’t trust cops, we’re all in trouble.  Sure there are crooked cops, but they work very hard to police themselves at that point.  I get engineers and cops, but college professors?  You know, I can’t say that I’ve ever had a college or seminary professor intentionally lie to me or try to convince me to believe something they believed to be untrue.  So, good for college professors!  I’m glad they scored high on the scale.

But let me tell you who didn’t score so well: car dealers and members of Congress scored the lowest.  Probably no surprise there for most of us.  But here’s the one that hurts me: only 52%—barely half of those polled—ranked ministers as being “high to very high” in honesty and ethics.  Ouch!  That’s my vocation.  And we ministers are supposed to traffic in the truth because we represent the One who called himself the Truth.

So why the low number for ministers?  I can only speculate here.  Don’t you imagine some of it comes from the fallout of a number of high profile ministers who have morally or financially crashed and burned since the 1980s—the Jim Bakkers and the Jimmy Swaggerts and, more recently, the Ted Haggards.  These are men who had a huge platform yet apparently preached one thing in public and lived a very different way in private.  The same goes for the recent child abuse scandal involving Roman Catholic priests.  I suspect a lot of honest, upright ministers who genuinely try to practice what they preach are lumped in with ministers like that in the age-old game called “guilt by association.”

Perhaps another reason is the growing cynicism in our culture that finds it hard to believe much anybody about much of anything, a culture that seems to enjoy watching people fail and fall, a culture that assumes most everybody is on the take or in it for themselves—even ministers.

And then there are ministers who lie on their resumes and plagiarize sermons others have preached yet allow their people to believe the sermon is their own.

But there are other reasons too.  Sometimes we ministers don’t tell people the truth.  “Give my ministry a hundred dollars and God will give you a thousand dollars.”  “Name it and claim it.”  “If you just have enough faith, God will heal your cancer.”  “Your poverty is not an economic issue, it’s a faith issue: God wills for you to be rich and healthy.”  When people hear that crock of bull, believe it, and then find it’s just not so, it’s no big jump to assume that ministers don’t always tell the truth.

But we ministers can also shade the truth in other ways.  I don’t know why, but most ministers have a lot of people-pleaser in them.  We typically like people and we want them to like us back.  We want to encourage people and help people.  As the old saying goes, we like to “comfort the afflicted.”  Where we may be too quick to shade the truth is when we refuse to “afflict the comfortable.”  We’re trying to lead and grow a church.  We don’t want to hurt attendance or donations.  It’s too easy for us to fall into what Paul called “ear-tickling”—telling people what they want to hear instead of telling them the truth.  It’s too easy for us to join the league of false prophets in the Old Testament who, even though Babylon was breathing down their neck, told the people that all would be well, that God had no issues over the people’s idolatry and lack of repentance.  Prophets like that were easy to love.  Prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah—prophets who spoke the sometimes uncomfortable truth—were not.  In fact, prophets who spoke the truth took a lot of abuse.  Some even got killed for it.

Maybe that’s why we preachers sometimes shade the truth in our day.  We want to be liked.  We want to be popular.  We want to grow the organization.  And we don’t want to be abused.  So we shy away from issues like greed and idolatry and giving and sexual ethics and hell and sacrifice and commitment.  We are quick to speak of the love of God and neglect to mention His wrath.  Rather than saying, “Ninety-five per cent commitment is five per cent too short” (thanks, Bill Hybels), we say, “Ninety-five, seventy-five, twenty-five, just whatever level of commitment works for you.”  Instead of preaching sermons that exalt Christ and expose our sin and call us to deeper transformation and devotion, we preach a bunch of “practical” how-to sermon series (how to have a happier marriage, how to succeed in life, how to overcome depression, how to raise successful kids, how to get God on your agenda).  People like that stuff—even though they can find it on the self-help shelf at any bookstore in town.  “It helps me live my life better,” they say.  But does it help them live the Christ-life better?  Bottom-line: we tend to make church about “me” instead of about Christ and the Gospel.  And when we do, we shade the truth.  And while people may like us ministers when we do, in their heart of hearts, they don’t believe us.  And they shouldn’t.

I’ve been at this ministry thing for 35 years.  I understand the struggle.  Age and experience have helped me move past the people-pleaser need—though it still raises its head in me from time to time.  But here’s my suggestion to us ministers: let’s tell the truth.  Let’s speak the truth in love even when it hurts us to say it and hurts people to hear it.  Let’s speak it at the right time, in the right way, and with the right spirit.  Let’s also tell the truth by the way we live so that our deeds are so close to our words that any disconnect people notice is the exception rather than the rule.  And let’s trust God in the telling and let the chips fall where they may.

You’ve heard the old taunt, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”  Many Christian leaders across history have had pants on fire all right, but it was because they told the truth.  And while I wouldn’t wish fire on anyone, I would wish the truth for everyone.