Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Top Ten Blessings of My Month Off

For the last year or so, the church’s deacons and Personnel Committee have considered allowing me to take leave each year for the month of July.  I’ve never been good about taking all my vacation, and they thought this would be a good way to make that happen.  I’ve been very close to burnout several times across the years, and they believed this month away would help keep that from happening.  The church agreed.  So I’ve been off work for a month.  I’m a little embarrassed to talk about this since so many people are out of work and so few that do work get much time off.  But it is what it is, and I want to give God and the church thanks for making this happen.  It’s been a good time, a blessed time.  So on this first day back to work, I thought I’d put together the top ten blessings of my month off.  I was tempted to list eleven things, but since I already wrote about one of my blessings in my last post, I’ll stick with ten.  Here goes …

Number 10 The church got to hear good preaching while I was gone.  As has often been said about pastors and time off, “If the pastor is good, he deserves it; if he’s not, the congregation deserves it.”  Our congregation deserves it, and they heard two of our staff members and two of our other favorite Arkansas preachers share God’s word with them in my absence.  Good stuff.

Number 9 I got to hear some good preaching too.  I was blessed to hear three of our Hot Springs pastors I’ve not heard before: one young Baptist, one non-denominational, and one Methodist.  I really enjoy worshiping with other folks and seeing what God is up to in His larger kingdom.  And it was a blessing to see one of our young couples I assumed had dropped out of church involved in the non-denominational church I visited.  God is big and God is good and God is working all over the place.

Number 8 I didn’t worry about the church because we have a great staff team and willing volunteers that are capable of taking care of things.  There ended up being a lot of things to take care of, and man, did our staff shine!

Number 7 I didn’t have to set my alarm for 4:20 every morning.  I still got up early; that’s just how I roll.  But I didn’t have to get up that early, so I got more rest than usual.   Nice.

Number 6 Safe travels.  I did some flying and some driving, and we got where we were going and back again in one piece.  And there was a bonus: I found out my credit card company would give me 5% off of gasoline purchases in July.  Having driven twice into Texas and once to Kansas City, 5% helps on the old pocketbook.  Thank you, Lord.

Number 5 I got to watch four Oriole baseball games in person—two in Baltimore, one in Texas, and one in Kansas City.  The O’s won three of them!  And getting to watch them with some of my family, well, that made it even sweeter. My son, grandson, and I went to Baltimore and stopped by D.C. on the way.  I even got the serendipitous blessing of seeing two old friends I once pastored at the Orioles v. Royals game in Kansas City.  That was kind of funny really.  I was in my seat at the game, checking my phone, when I saw a Facebook post from a young man I watched grow up when I was pastor of his church in the KC area.  Knowing I'm an Oriole fan, he posted, "I wish John McCallum was here to watch the Orioles play the Royals."  I quickly commented on his post, "Your wish is granted.  I'm in section 114."  He then commented, "Stand up, turn around, and look into the Stadium Club above you."  I did and there were Dennis and B.J.  We were able to chat a little before the game began.  That's pretty cool.

Number 4 I was able to follow on Facebook our church’s mission trips to Japan and to Arlington.  They did such a great job of keeping us updated that I almost felt like I was there.  And God used those trips in great ways.  And along a similar line, I got to briefly share my love for Jesus with a Pakistani Muslim taxi-driver in Baltimore.

Number 3 I completed my sermon schedule for the rest of the year.  It’s always easier to prepare sermons when you have some idea where you’re going.  The Lord helped me get those ideas.  And I was able to work on that without having to take phone calls and make visits and deal with emergencies that might have cropped out had I been “on the job.”  Whether these sermons will be any good remains to be seen, but it’s good to have direction anyway.

Number 2 I got to spend quality time with my whole family.  I’m blessed to get to see my son and his family fairly often, but I only see my daughter and her family two or three times a year.  It was good to spend a few days with her, her husband, and their three kids, deep in the heart of Texas.

And the number 1 blessing of my month off – I got to come back to work today.  Yes, I’m grateful to have a job.  But I’m just as grateful to be ready to come back to work.  I had a month off a couple of years ago, and I wasn’t ready to come back to work when it was over.  I was in a burnout phase that didn’t get better with time away.  The fact that I’ve been ready to come back to work for the last week tells me I’m in pretty good shape emotionally and spiritually. 

So, thank you, Lord.  And thank you, First Baptist Church, for the gift of this time.  I do not take it for granted.  And this is my prayer for all of you who read these words: May any time off you get be as blessed as mine!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hey Pastor, It Doesn't Come Back Empty After All

So I went to preach at a church in Benton, Arkansas, on Sunday night.  They’re having one of those get-a-different-preacher-every-Sunday-night-for-a-month-revival kind of deals.  I was honored to be asked.  I’m a little familiar with this church.  I’ve preached there twice before during the tenures of the two previous pastors.  Good people in that church.

Anyway, during the worship service one of their members gets up to do a musical/recitation kind of thing.  But before he does his thing, he shares a little story about how God moved him to get more deeply involved in serving God in the church and out.  He said it started with a sermon a guest pastor preached to that church several years ago.  It was a sermon called “Kingdom Math” based on the story in John 6 of the little boy who gave his sack lunch to Jesus—a lunch Jesus used to feed a multitude.  “What’s in your pouch?” asked the preacher.  “It may not seem like much to you, but in Jesus’ hands little becomes a lot and small things like a child, five biscuits, and a couple of minnows are worth more than we can imagine.  It may not figure in the world’s view of things, but that’s kingdom math.  Give Jesus what you have and just see what He can do with it.”  The man said he was so stirred by that story and that sermon that God used it to change his life and to move him to invest even what he thought were little things into the kingdom of God.  Guess what?  The preacher he was talking about was me.

To tell the truth, I was taken aback by it.  So many times it feels like we're preaching to hard hearts and brick walls.  So many times we preachers feel like we might as well be shouting into an empty well.  Maybe like me, you've had the experience of preaching a sermon you thought would surely touch a particular individual's life only to have that person tell you after the sermon, "I hope people were listening today, preacher.  We've got some folks who sure needed to hear that."  Sheesh!  I know what God said through Isaiah—that God’s word will never return void, never come back empty once it’s spoken.  I know that, but I don’t often see the evidence of it in my own life.   Sure, preaching is not fully God’s word; it’s got a lot of the preacher’s words and biases and attitudes mixed in with it.  But God’s word is usually in there somewhere.  And it’s nice to know that now and then God’s strong word somehow cuts through my feeble words, lands on somebody’s heart, and comes back with some return for God and His kingdom.  I was encouraged.

Let’s face it, we preachers speak so many words, preach so many sermons, we can’t even remember them, let alone expect any lasting remembrance on the part of the parishioners who must endure those words Sunday by Sunday, year after year.  I know the old analogy that just as well-fed people can't tell you every meal they’ve ever eaten, parishioners can't tell you every sermon they’ve ever heard.  But it doesn’t mean they haven’t been well-fed along the way.  So it’s nice, now and then, to know that a sermon hit a bulls-eye in somebody’s heart, that God gave it life beyond the hours it took to prepare it and the 20 minutes it took to preach it, that it actually made a difference in a person’s life and in the kingdom of God.

I just wanted to share this to encourage the preachers who read it.  Hey, it doesn’t come back empty after all!  What you say, how God uses your words, is making a difference in the lives of many of the people who hear you.  Keep it up.  Don’t grow wearing in doing (and preaching) well.  You may not see much come of it just yet, but one day you will.  And if you don’t hear it much this side of heaven, I suspect you will hear it for sure on the other side.  It will amaze you and astound you.  It will stir yet more praise and glory to God.  And in spite of the fact that God wipes away our tears in heaven, when you hear what a difference your words actually made, you’ll probably sit down and weep with thanksgiving and joy.  All that preparation, all that teaching and preaching: it doesn’t come back empty after all.

So I went to preach yet another time in a revival service, and guess who came away most revived.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isa. 55:10-11).

*A footnote for you non-preachers who read this: every now and then, you’d give your pastor a real lift if you’d let him/her know how God used one of his/her sermons in your life.     

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Woman's Self-Esteem

Okay, I get it.  What in the heck is a man doing writing about a woman’s self-esteem?  The answer: taking a very large chance at being laughed off the face of the earth.  But since nobody much reads these thoughts anyway, I’m going for it.  And here’s why: a little experience I had with my granddaughter Macey Jo while visiting my daughter Kristen and her family in Texas last week.

Years ago I read a statement by entertainer Dinah Shore (people my age and older will know who she is; younger folks can Google her).  She said, “A woman’s self-esteem depends, in any given moment, on how she thinks she looks.”  And I thought men were shallow!  (Just kidding, ladies.)  In 35 years of marriage I've learned that Dinah spoke a lot of truth in that statement.  That was brought home to me once again through my youngest granddaughter Macey Jo a few days ago.

Macey Jo is almost three.  She’s the small one in the accompanying picture.  Notice what she’s wearing.  Kristen usually picks out the clothes Macey Jo wears each day, but she decided she’d let Macey’s big sister Hallie (the big one in the picture, almost five, really likes pink) pick out Macey’s clothes that day.  As you can see, Hallie dressed Macey Jo in red capri pants, an orange t-shirt, and a gray hooded-sweater.  Macey Jo herself chose the leopard print multi-colored rain boots to complete the ensemble.  (All this is in 100 degree Texas heat, by the way.)  Anyway, once the ensemble was complete, Macey Jo considered her little fashion statement and said, “I look awesome”—which sounded more like “awethome.”  Now Macey spends all summer at T-BAR-M Camp Travis, a Christian camp for teenagers, so she probably hears the word awesome about 100 times a day, but Kristen had never heard Macey say it even once.  “I look awethome.”  Macey Jo’s self-esteem was soaring.  Dinah Shore would be proud.

I’ll try not to get on my soapbox about the self-esteem cult in our culture—this whole idea that life is essentially about the self, that we must do everything we can to love self, exalt self, protect self, assert self, express self, satisfy self, promote self, talk about self, and feel good about self.  Even though Protagoras was a 5th century BC Greek philosopher, he summed up the spirit of today’s American culture when he said, “Man is the center of all things.”  We Americans have sharpened that up a bit however: “Self is the center of all things.”  As a result we’ve become so concerned about a kid’s self-esteem that many parents cater to them, neglect to discipline them, bail them out of their troubles, and forget to teach them that they are also sinners in need of salvation and redemption and transformation.  We enforce this false teaching that they are essentially good and that life is all about them and their happiness.  It’s unfortunate, and it results in undisciplined, spoiled, self-centered kids (and later adults) who see everything through the lens of self.  What small lives such people live! “I look awethome.”

It’s okay to feel good about oneself.  And when rooted in Christ’s love and mercy in our lives, self-esteem allows us to be at peace with the self and okay with self without becoming self-absorbed or self-centered.  Christ-centered self-esteem allows us look at ourselves objectively, recognizing both our strengths and our sins.  Christ-centered self-esteem helps us not to take ourselves too seriously.  And it helps us remember that Christ, not self, is the center of all things.  That means we can be at peace with ourselves, feel okay about ourselves, and still value others more highly than we value ourselves.

Which brings me to another Macey Jo story from last week.  The camp where my son-in-law and daughter serve makes a big deal of July 4.  One of the events is a whiffle ball game between the camp coaches.  They put on the dog.  They serve hot dogs and popcorn and cotton candy.  They hang up American flags.  The “President” throws out the first pitch.  Announcers call the game.  And a “celebrity” sings the National Anthem.  My daughter was that “celebrity.”  Since they want this to be over-the-top, she wore a Cinderella princess-type dress for the singing—akin to a pink bridal dress with a hooping skirt that extended all the way to the floor.  It was gaudy.  It was supposed to be.  But as my daughter Kristen put on the dress and was readying her hair for the big event, Macey Jo approached her, put her hands on that big pink dress, looked up at her mom, and said, “You look wunnerful, Mama!”  It was a great moment.  I get to see so few of those moments with my grandkids, I’m thankful I got to see that one.  “You look wunnerful, Mama!”

And there you go—healthy self-esteem for every woman (and for every man).  She can say, “I look awethome!”  And she can turn around and say to another, “You look wunnerful!”—an honest, if merciful, appraisal of self, and the capacity to compliment others without any “self” in the comment.  None of this “You look wonderful” while thinking, “But I look better.”  None of this, “You look wonderful” but meaning “I’m so jealous and I really wish you didn’t look so wonderful because it makes me look worse.”  It was an honest, selfless compliment: “You look wunnerful, Mama.”

Thanks, Macey Jo, for teaching me a little bit about healthy self-esteem.  Art Linkletter was right: “Kids say the darnedest things.”  And as often as not, they teach us the truth in the process.        

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A July 4th Letter to the Exiles

Man, did Jerusalem ever have it bad!  Of course, they brought it on themselves.  In spite of repeated warnings from the prophets to repent, they continued to pursue idolatry and social injustice.  Now they were paying the price.  The Babylonians had the city under siege and they’d already carted off to exile thousands of Jerusalemites (or whatever you call them).  False prophets had told the exiles not to worry, they wouldn’t be there long.  Jeremiah, a true prophet, knew better.  He knew they would be in Babylonian exile for 70 years or so.  Talk about a long time out!  They were in a land that worshiped all kinds of gods, a land whose values were certainly not rooted in the Law of Moses.  The Jews were strangers in a strange land. 

So Jeremiah wrote them a letter to tell them what to do (Jer. 29).  It’s interesting what he didn’t say.  He didn’t tell them to rebel, to take up arms, to organize some kind of underground resistance and become a thorn in the side of the Babylonians.  Quite to the contrary, Jeremiah told them settle in, get on with their lives, marry and have kids, build homes, plant gardens, and develop communities.  He also told them work for the peace and prosperity of whatever city they lived in and pray for its welfare.  It’s a great letter and not a little bit surprising.

You know, the deeper we get into the 21st century, the more I feel like an exile in my own country.  I’m almost 57 years old and I can honestly say that this is not the America I grew up in.  I grew up in an America that for the most part reverenced God, legislated Christian values, and sort of propped up the church, even requiring most businesses to close on Sunday.  American doesn’t do any of that anymore.  And I know a lot of Christians who are very angry about it all.  Last week’s Supreme Court ruling which changed the federal understanding of marriage was one more in a lengthening line of defeats for Christian values.

While disappointing on many levels to see the drift of America away from traditional Christian moorings, evidence would indicate that the church often does better in settings that are indifferent or hostile to it.  It gives the church an opportunity to be radically different from the prevailing culture.  It keeps the church from drifting into the idolatry of nationalism.  And as opposition grows in the culture against the church, the cream of the church often rises to the top.  It’s not all bad.

It makes me wonder what God might say to those of us who are, as Peter called the church in the Roman Empire, “aliens in the land” (1 Pet. 2:17).  Would God tell us to get mad, right angry letters, excoriate pagans, take over government, and shove our Christian values down everybody’s throat—even those that aren't even Christian?  I’m no prophet, so I can't say for sure what God would tell us.  But I can do this: I can take a cue from God’s word through Jeremiah and compose a brief letter to us 21st century exiles.

Dear Church,

I know who you are and I know where you live.  I see what’s going on in your country.  None of it catches me by surprise.  And in spite of what’s going on, I still love the world and that includes America.  So make yourself at home in the land where you live.  Continue to marry and have children.  Work for the peace and prosperity of America.  Pray for its leaders and its welfare.

And fulfill my mission.  Your culture has changed; your mission has not.  Love me with everything you’ve got.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Worship me with joy.  Grow in holiness.  Treat all people with kindness grace.  Serve the widow, the orphan, and the poor.  Share the gospel of Jesus in your community and world.  Be prepared to give a reason for your hope, and do it with gentleness and respect.  Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with me.

I have a hope and a future for you that doesn’t depend on how Christian America is.  Seek me with all your heart, and trust me.  My hands are on the wheel.


Now I’m no Jeremiah the prophet; I’m just John the pastor.  So take this for what it’s worth.  But if God was sending a letter to us Christian exiles in America, maybe it would sound a little like that.

So in spite of the way things are going in our nation, there are still many blessings to enjoy and God’s mission to fulfill. Happy Independence Day, everyone!  And may God bless America.