Monday, November 24, 2014

Please Don't Call It "Dumb Luck"

Some of you remember the '80's TV series Thirtysomething.  I was in my thirties for about half of that decade, so I watched the show now and then.  I remember one episode in particular.  Elliot's wife Nancy is stricken with cancer.  After surgery and a series of treatments, they do more testing to determine if the cancer is arrested and Nancy is healed.  During those three or four days, Eliot spends a great deal of time in prayer.  Elliot is not a particularly religious man.  Like so many people who are thirty-something, most of his faith was from childhood.  In these intervening years he had drifted away from the church and forgotten God. But in spite of that, Elliot spends a great deal of time in prayer in the hospital.  He tries praying in the chapel.  He tries praying in a stairwell.  But the place where he seems most comfortable in his prayers is in a hospital restroom, shut up in a stall, one foot on the toilet, his head in his hands in agonizing prayer … "O God, please heal Nancy.  Please make her well.  I don't know what I would do without her.  She's a good person, God.  Please heal her.  And if you'll heal her, I promise that I will never forget you again.  Never."

A few scenes later, we find out the good news: Nancy is healed.  All the cancer is gone.  So they quickly get a party together in his wife's hospital room.  Their closest friends attend.  And amid the celebration, one of Elliot's friends says to him, "Elliot, man, this is incredibly good news.  I can't believe it.  The cancer is gone.  How do you explain it?"

"Dumb luck, I guess," said Elliot.  "Just plain dumb luck."

The reason I remember that episode so well is because Elliot’s comment really ticked me off.  “Dumb luck.”  Are you kidding me?  You prayed and you prayed and you prayed.  God answered.  And you had the nerve to call it “dumb luck”?  The reason that lights my fire is because I’ve seen that too many times as a pastor.  Here’s just one example: Matt is cleaning his shotgun.  He thought it was unloaded.  It wasn’t.  It went off.  It nearly cost him his left eye.  It could have cost him his life.  Matt had been an on and off church attender up to this time.  When I visited him in the hospital he said, “Pastor, I could have been killed.  I should have been killed.  But God spared me for a reason.  And soon as I get well I’ll be in church every Sunday.  I’ll be a new man.  And I'll never forget God again.”  Matt got well.  He attended church a couple of times.  And we never saw Matt again.

I wonder how he told this story in years to come.  How did he explain the scar?  Did he attribute the sparing of his life to God or to dumb luck?  How quickly we forget the mercies and kindness and blessings of God.

As we enter another Thanksgiving season, I encourage you to take stock of your blessings—past and present.  Please don’t call them “dumb luck.”  As W. W. Davies writes, "The Greek word for 'luck' occurs quite often in Greek and Roman literature.  The Greeks believed deeply in the power and pervasiveness of luck.  Interestingly, that word appears nowhere in the entire New Testament."

Maybe you have good health, a stable job, a happy family, a productive life, a good church.  Maybe you enjoy good friends, enough to eat, a roof over your head, and a vehicle to drive.  Maybe you’re on the backside of a difficult season in your life.  Maybe you’ve come through many dangers, toils, and snares, and lived to tell about it.  Perhaps you could list a few answered prayers and couple of times when God appeared to intervene in your life and change a scary thing into a good thing.  Call these things blessings.  Call them gifts.  Call them grace.  But please don’t call them dumb luck.

O give thanks to the Lord for he is good, and his steadfast love endures forever! (Ps. 136:1)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Don't Go!

As our Senegal mission team was making final preparations for our annual November Medical Mission Team trip to the village we’ve partnered with for years, all hell broke loose late last week.  It began in Nashville, Arkansas, where six persons from that church were slated to join us again for this trip.  Because Ebola is in four countries in West Africa, panic ramped up when people heard we were going to Senegal (a West African nation but one with no Ebola.  As I write this, Senegal has had only one Ebola case.  That was in August with a man from Guinea who came to Senegal, was treated, and returned home.  Currently, there is more Ebola in the United States than there is or even has been in Senegal.  I’ve chuckled to myself envisioning a scene where our team tried to enter Senegal and were told by Senegalese authorities, “You’re from the United States.  I’m sorry we aren’t letting anyone into our country who comes from a country that has Ebola.” 


But don’t confuse people with the facts when their minds are already made up.  Word got out we were going though it’s been public knowledge in the church for months.  And the vitriol, the threats to person and property, and the abuse began to flow in ways that you wouldn’t believe if I told you.  Social media blew up.  The phone rang off the wall.  Even some people from out of state piled on.  When people are armed with fear instead of facts, holy cow!  What’s troubling on a personal level is in 179 years of ministry in Hot Springs, First Baptist Church has done nothing but love this community well.  And suddenly, people acted as if our real mission with this trip was to bring Ebola to Hot Springs.  Really?  Really.  (By the way, our team leader monitored conditions every day and would have delayed the trip up to the last minute if Ebola cases were identified in Senegal.)


Sadly, the uproar got so bad that we determined to delay our trip for now.  Some have faulted us for that: “Don’t give in to persecution!”  I understand that critique.  But, as I mentioned, we love Hot Springs.  The church in Nashville loves their city too.  And it’s not like we were told, “You can’t preach the gospel.”  Certainly, we would never stop doing that.  We determined it was in the community’s interest at this point to calm things down and postpone the trip.  We can send another church team when Ebola is not such a concern.  And we know that God can do something good for our friends in Senegal and in us even in our delay.


Anyway, I felt the need on Sunday to clarify our philosophy of missions at First Baptist Church.  It’s good for our own people to remember what we’re about.  And for those outside the church that are curious about why we do the things we do around the world and here at home, here’s our rationale:


Let me say a word about missions at First Baptist Church.  We are serious about the Great Commission.  We believe it applies to this church and every believer.  For us, missions is not about tourism or convenience.  We don’t flit from here to there just to see new and interesting places in the world.  We establish strategic partnerships and develop deep relationships for the purpose of making disciples of all nations.  We go to hard places.  We do hard things.  We ask people to sacrifice their time and treasure to get it done.  It’s not always safe.  It’s sometimes risky.  But we go.  We go where God has led us.  We go because God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear and because perfect love casts out fear.  We go in the power of His Holy Spirit who goes before us.  We go because we love God and we love the people He loves.  We go because we believe Jesus is the only way to salvation and that in Jesus people can live a fuller, more meaningful life than they can live without Him.  We go in the confidence that God’s word doesn’t come back empty and that every act of kindness we show becomes a gospel seed that God can blossom into eternal life.  We go because when those we reach out to trust Jesus, they become reproducing disciples with the people in their villages and culture.  We go in the sure and certain hope that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and we want to be part of the answer to Jesus’ model prayer.


The Coast Guard has a motto: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”  We have to go out.  It’s not an option.  It’s not a luxury.  It’s a command, and a joyful command at that.  Missions is not a side show at First Baptist Church.  Missions is not an auxiliary ministry.  Missions is who we are and what we do—in our neighborhoods and our city and our nation and our world.  And because we seek to be more concerned for a lost world than we are for our own comfort and safety, when, someday in heaven, we join the multitude from every nation, tribe, and tongue praising God around his throne, we will know some of those people.  And they will be there, in part, because God said, “Go,” and we went.  And every dime we ever spent, every hour we ever sacrificed, and every risk we ever took will be worth it.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Thank You, Ruth Class

I was asked to speak to our Senior Adult group this past Thursday.  Rather than telling a bunch of aging jokes I decided to take a more serious tack.  I don't know why really.  Maybe it's because this is a nostalgic year for me.  I had my 40th class reunion in May.  God called me to ministry 40 years ago this past June.  And 40 years ago this fall, I left home for college and the rest of my life.  Anyway, I decided to talk to our group of Senior Adults about some of the ways God has used seniors in my ministry. 

My thoughts immediately raced to the Ruth Class at First Baptist Church, Branson, Missouri back in the mid-70s.  The Ruth Class was a senior adult women’s Sunday School class in the church.  I don’t know why, but that class took an interest in me from the moment I declared God had called me to ministry.  I didn’t grow up in the church (I had been Presbyterian).  None of them knew me very well at all.  But they sort of adopted me.  One of the ladies gave me my first commentary: Matthew Henry’s One-Volume Commentary on the Whole Bible.  I still have it and cherish it—not so much for the commentary but for the sentiment it holds for me.  That gift was a message that said, “You are going to love and preach the Bible.  This will help you do it better.” 

Oh, and another thing about that class: when I went off to the University of Arkansas in August of 1974, that class of ladies (most of whom were on a small fixed income) took up a little love offering for me every month.  And that offering said, “We believe in you.  We believe God is going to use your life.  And we want to be part of that.”  Those ladies also told me that they believed I would write books someday.  Well, I’ve never written a book.  But I told them that if and when I ever did, I’d dedicate it to those ladies for their faith and confidence in God’s work in my life.  Funny thing is that one of our church secretaries, Tammy Dean, is helping me get my Dr. Seussical Christmas poem I did last year turned into a book.  Sadly, I don’t think it will allow for a dedication page, but if it did I can tell you what I’d write on that page: “To the 1970s Ruth Sunday School Class of First Baptist Church, Branson, Missouri.  They may have been old, but they were strong enough to lift me up and launch me into my ministry.” 

I imagine they’re long dead now.  Most of them lived long enough to see their faith in me become a least a little sight.  I suspect they had far higher expectations for me than I have achieved—I never became the next Billy Graham or the great author some predicted I would become—but I pray that when they consider the balance of my work, they would not be too disappointed.  I’m going to look them up when I get to heaven, and I hope we can have a little reunion.  “Well,” I’ll say, as I look down and move a little dirt around with my foot, “I never wrote great books and nobody but you ever mistook me for Billy Graham.  I’m sorry if I let you down.”  And I suspect their leader, Peg Holbrook, would look down her glasses at me, furrow her brow, and say, “Young man (I will probably be perpetually young to that class), did you do what you believed God led you to do?”  And I’ll look her in the eye and say, “I’m sure I could have done more, but I think I did most of what God led me to do.”  And then she’ll smile and say, “Then that’s good enough for us.  Our investment in you was worth every prayer and every penny.”  Peg wasn’t a hugger, but some of the rest of them were, so I suspect they’ll be a few hugs, and with every hug a “Thank you, ladies” and a “Thank you, God.” 

The Ruth Class—a gift of God wrapped in wrinkles, clip-on earrings, coiffed hair, worn out Bibles, print dresses, and maybe a little too much rouge and perfume—given to me to start me on the way to ministry.

Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God (Phil. 1:3).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Long Arm of the Lord

See that guy in the picture?  His name is Jason.  I love that guy.  I’ve loved him for a lot of years—consider him a good friend and fellow fitness junkie.  He is bright, creative, witty, committed, a good man, a family man, Iron Man, triathlete, runner extraordinaire, and a Northerner from Chicago (but I forgive him for that, and he did have the good sense to move to the South).  Oh, and one other thing: until about a month ago, he was spiritually lost—didn’t know God.  For most of his life he didn’t even believe there is a God—used to make fun, he says, of Christians and church stuff.

His wife works for the church as a publications secretary.  A number of years ago, she talked him into coming up to the church gym and playing some basketball with us.  He did.  He discovered Christians weren’t going to judge him or twist his arm to repent.  He actually had fun with us.  He came back.  He participated in church sports.  When we developed a fitness ministry, he got involved in that—even got certified to lead fitness classes in our ministry.  Next thing you know, he visited church with his family once in a while, and then regularly, and then Sunday School class—all at his own pace, no pressure just love and friendship.  Added into that mix were occasional spiritual conversations—some initiated by Christian friends, some by Jason.  And underneath all of that were the prayers of his Christian wife and many people over several years for Jason’s salvation.

Now, what do you get when you pour all that into an atheist, mix it well, and wait on God?  You get a new believer.  A few weeks ago, Jason put his trust in Jesus Christ.  When I had the privilege to baptize him a few days ago, I couldn’t help myself but to do a little fist pump when he came up out of the water.  That fist pump was a “Yea, God!” and a “Yea, church!”  Another lost sheep found.  Another lost son came home.  God grinned.  The angels danced.  The people clapped their praise to God, and even the baptistery water did the wave.

There’s a lot more to his story.  And though Jason gave me permission to post this blog, it’s really his story to tell, not mine.  What I want to do with Jason’s story is reinforce some things his story teaches us about evangelism, and leverage it to encourage any of you who wonder if your lost loved one is a lost cause.

First, Christian friendship has great influence in getting someone to Jesus.  Jason was never a project, never a potential notch in anybody’s Bible; he was and is a friend.  Friends love unconditionally.  Friends are patient.  Friends influence but they don’t push.  As Ken Medema used to sing, “Don’t tell me I have a friend in Jesus until I have a friend in you.”

Second, never underestimate the power of prayer in evangelism.  I can’t explain the metaphysics of it all, but over time, God heard and answered the prayers of many to bring Jason to Jesus.  When Jason came to Jesus, there wasn’t one person who thought he or she was responsible for Jason’s decision.  We all know God did it, and He did it in response to prayer—years and years of prayer.

Third, if you are praying for a lost loved one to come to Christ, be patient.  Don’t give up, don’t let up, don’t quit.  Pray and wait.  Wait and pray.  God is doing things in that loved one’s life you can’t see and you don’t know.  As Master Po used to say to student Caine in the TV series Kung Fu, “Patience, grasshopper, patience.”  God is on the case.  God is working backstage, putting people and events in your loved one’s path that are gifts to help that loved one get to Jesus.  And God has the power to save your loved one.  Keep on praying and don’t lose heart.

And fourth, God has a really long arm.  It was long enough to reach Jason, long enough to reach across atheism and settled opinions and a hard heart and lift him from death to life, from being lost to being found, from “Jesus is a joke” to “My Lord and my God.”  I’ve seen God’s long arm reach hard people before.  I knew sooner or later, He would reach out and take hold of Jason.  God’s arm is long enough to reach your lost loved one too.  No case is too hard.  No soul is too lost.  No person is out of God’s reach. 

Just how long is God’s arm? 

Long enough to reach from heaven to earth,
long enough to stretch out and embrace the nails that fixed His Son Jesus to the cross on which He died for our sins,
long enough to pull His Son from death and the grave to resurrection life,
long enough to save me,
long enough to save you,
long enough to save Jason,

long enough to save all who call upon His name.

The prophet Jeremiah put it this way: "Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm.  Nothing is too hard for you” (32:17).

The prophet Isaiah put it this way: “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” (59:1).

And songwriter Wayne Watson said it like this in a song that I hope encourages you today:

‘Cause you can never outrun
or go beyond the reaches
of the long arm of the Lord.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Word for Teachers for a New School Year

A local superintendent invited me to speak to his faculty and staff as part of their personal/professional development on their first day back for the new school year.  He told me their word for the year was believe—believe in the students so that they might believe in themselves and improve themselves this year.  I was honored to be asked.  I had never done anything like this in my life, so I was a little nervous about too.  Anyway, some of the listeners found it encouraging, so I am posting here for any other teachers who might benefit from this as well.  It’s much longer than my typical blog (the superintendent told me to speak for 20 minutes).  But you can decide in a few paragraphs if it’s worth your time.


Mary Ann Bird, a little girl from Massachusetts, was born with a cleft palate.  She was constantly teased and taunted in ways that made it clear to her how she must look to other children—misshapen lip, lopsided teeth, crooked nose, and garbled speech.  She was ashamed and often lied about her condition.  She wanted people to think it was caused by an accident rather than believe she was born this way.  By the age of seven, Mary Ann was convinced that no one outside her family could ever love her or even like her.

Then she entered second grade and Mrs. Leonard's class.  Everyone adored Mrs. Leonard, even Mary Ann.

In those days hearing tests were given in school.  Mary Ann was barely able to hear out of one ear.  She could not bear to reveal yet another problem that would single her out as different from everyone else, so she cheated.  As the teacher conducted the test, Mary Ann would sneak a peek at the other children and when she saw them raising their hands, she raised hers too.  But she couldn't escape being singled out in the whisper test where each child had to go to the door of the room, turn sideways, and block one ear with a finger.  The teacher would then whisper something like, "The sky is blue," or "Do you have new shoes?" and the child would have to repeat it.

Mary Ann dreaded this test.  As one by one the students in front of her made their trip to the door for the test, Mary Ann grew increasingly anxious.  She held onto her desk until her knuckles turned white.  But her turn finally came.  She just knew she would be found out.  Anticipating her shame she walked on up and stood at the door.  She pretended to block her good ear, hoping that nobody would notice.  And as she stood there, petrified by her fear, Mrs. Leonard softly whispered, "I wish you were my little girl."[1]

Mary Ann Bird called those words “the seven words that changed my life forever.”  Those words didn’t come from a parent.  They didn’t come from a preacher.  They didn’t come from a friend.  The seven words that changed her life forever came from a teacher—a teacher who chose to believe in a student that most others had written off.

You teachers can have a powerful impact in the life of your students.  Your belief in them, your encouragement in their lives, can change their lives in significant ways—from “I can’t” students to “I can” students; from “who cares?” students to “I care” students; from “I can’t wait to get out of school” students to “I can’t wait to embrace my future” students.

Teachers who believed in me and encouraged me made impact in my life I remember to this day.

I still remember my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Dennis, pulling me aside one day and saying, “John, I think you’re going places—you have a really good attitude.”  As a kid from a broken home, I was insecure and lacked confidence, and her words gave me life.  That was 1966, some 48 years ago.  I don’t remember anything else she said that school year, but I remember those words to this day.  She believed in me.

I remember in 6th grade when Mr. Needham asked me to be the first captain of the first ever Safety Patrol at the crosswalks at Branson Elementary School.  He saw something in me I never saw in myself: leadership potential.  Sadly, I got tired of being teased for wearing my shoulder belt and my badge, and after about three months, I quit.  I still remember the astonished look on his face and the first words he said to me, “I’m stunned.”  He believed in me, and I let him down.  He did his part: he believed in me.  I failed in my part—not because I couldn’t lead but because I wouldn’t lead.  As you teachers and coaches already know, you’ll believe in some kids that will let you down.  But please don’t stop believing in kids. 

I remember Miss Kinsinger asking me to give the speech at my 8th-grade graduation.  I wasn’t close to being valedictorian.  I wasn’t really a class leader, but I guess she saw something in me and assigned me that task.  It went well.  I received much encouragement.  That would be my first taste of public speaking.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up making a career of public speaking as a pastor.  She believed in me.

I remember Roy Gertson asking me to write for my high school paper.  I had never written anything except a few thank you notes after Christmas and a few letters to my dad.  But he saw some potential in me, asked me to write for the paper, and I’ve been writing this and that ever since.  He believed in me.

I remember my senior year, my first year to take “chorus” (I thought it would be easy—no homework) when Mr. Shurtz asked me to sing a solo for district contest.  I could carry a tune but it never occurred to me to sing a solo.  But he saw that capacity in me.  He worked with me after school a few times, got me ready, and I sang a solo for contest.  And more than 40 years later I still remember some of one of the songs I sang: “You can’t take it with you, Brother Will, Brother John, you can’t take it with you when you die.”  That experience gave me courage to sing more solos in the future in church and to my girlfriend with my guitar.  He believed in me.

And I remember Coach Russell.  It was my senior year.  I was on the track team for a school that didn’t even have a track.  But we practiced in an open field and on the lakefront—where the Branson Landing is now.  I was in one of those situations as a kid where if I didn’t work I didn’t have any money, so I tried to balance work and track.  I couldn’t practice every day.  Didn’t have the discipline or time to run much on my own.  But my boss let me off for meets.  I remember one of those meets.  I ran the 880 and a leg in the 2-mile relay.  The 2-mile relay was one of the first events.  I was nervous.  I knew I wasn’t ready, wasn’t in my best running shape.  I got the baton second, and we were in second place.  I took off and actually felt really good.  By the end of the first lap I caught and passed the runner in first place.  I opened up a 15 yard lead or so on him and maintained that lead till the last turn home.  Suddenly, my legs felt like lead, my lungs were on fire, my pulse was pounding like a bass drum in my head, and I hit the wall.  I finished, but the second place runner just went racing by me at the end.  I stumbled out into the infield and puked out everything I had eaten that day.  I was discouraged.  I so wanted to win.  Coach Russell found me after the race.  He was smiling.  I thought it was because I was puking and he could say, “See, when you don’t practice every day, this is what happens.”  But you know what he said?  He said, “McCallum, you just ran the best time you ever ran in your life.  I’m proud of you, boy.”  He believed in me.

And Coach Russell helped me realize that while I didn’t win the race, I won my race.  I did the best I could under my circumstances.  That’s helped me keep perspective on many things throughout my life.  And it’s helped me help others do the same.

And maybe that’s one thing you can do for your students and your athletes this school-year.  Encourage them to run their race and win their race.  Notice their potential.  And do whatever you can to help them see it too.  Believe in your students so that they might believe in themselves.

And you know how that works.  Every teacher I’ve known, whether they would admit it or not, have their favorite students.  They just like some kids better than others: maybe it’s chemistry, maybe the teacher knows the family, maybe it’s the kids’ talents, maybe the kid is fun to have in class and be around—I don’t know.  But you know.  And you also know that it’s pretty easy to believe in kids like that, to encourage kids like that, to invest a little more time in kids like that.  And there’s nothing wrong with that—that’s human nature, that’s life. 

But here’s the deal about kids like that.  They are kids that most everybody believes in.  They probably benefit from strong parental love and encouragement.  Other teachers love them too.  Some of them are part of churches that love them.  They’ve likely enjoyed some successes along the way in school or sports or music.  They are easy to believe in because they’ve proved themselves over and over.  Keep on believing in these kids.  Keep on encouraging them to get better and do better.  Keep on expecting much of them.  Celebrate their successes and encourage them when they fail.

But could I ask you to do something else this school-year?  What if in your classes this year, you deliberately look for two or three Mary Ann Birds who are kind of on the edge, who maybe don’t have the greatest home-life or the best grades, and seek to believe in that kid, to build into that kid, to help that kid see her potential and become what she may never be without your belief in her and your encouragement?

I’m a pastor, so I can’t help but get a little theological for a moment, so please bear with me.  My kids are long since grown and have kids of their own, but when they were in school, my wife and I decided we would exercise no influence over who their teacher would be in any given grade.  We could have.  Their elementary school principal was a personal friend and a faithful member of the church I served.  But we asked God to be in charge of that.  And we chose to trust that God would put our kids with the teacher they needed most and among a class they needed most to grow their lives.  Now, we didn’t always like God’s choice.  But by the end of each year we could see and so could our kids that God knew what He was doing.

I say that to say this: in my judgment the students who will sit at the desks in your classroom are not there coincidentally.  They are there because they don’t just need a geometry credit or a biology credit or an English credit or a foreign language credit; they need you.  And because God loves you and God loves those kids, He has put you together.  You already know that you don’t just teach subjects so much as you teach students.  So teach those students and believe in those students and encourage those students.  And maybe pick out one or two or three in whom you can make a real difference.  You can help a stone become flesh, a bud become a bloom, and a defeated kid taste a little success.  You can be another Mrs. Leonard to another Mary Ann Bird.

I guess I’m asking you to become an encourager.  The word encouragement is from the French word coeur: it means to put “heart” into someone.  You probably see more than your share of kids who could stand having some “heart” put into them.  Encouragement happens when you speak from your heart to someone else’s fears or failures.  Some are better encouragers than others, but all of us can do it at some level.  And for some of the kids in your classroom, any level you can offer may well be more than they’re getting anywhere else.

When the opportunity arises to encourage a kid, do it.  And I don’t so much mean group encouragement: “This is a great class.  You’re great students.”  The kids who get a lot of encouragement may benefit from that, but the kid who doesn’t will assume that you really mean everybody but him.  So find ways to offer individual encouragement.  And when you get the opportunity, do it.  Don’t hold it back and give it to them straight.

Garrison Keillor writes:

The town ball club was the Lake Wobegon Schroeders, so named because the starting nine were brothers, sons of E. J. Schroeder.  E. J. was ticked off if a boy hit a bad pitch.  He’d spit and curse and rail at him.  And if a son hit a home run, E. J. would say, “Blind man coulda hit that one.  Your gramma coulda put the wood on that one.  If a guy couldn’t hit that one out, there’d be something wrong with him, I’d say.  Wind practically took that one out of here, didn’t even need to hit it much”—and lean over and spit.

So his sons could never please him, and if they did, he forgot about it.  Once, against Freeport, his oldest boy, Edwin Jim, Jr., turned and ran to the centerfield fence for a long, long fly ball.  He threw his glove forty feet in the air to snag the ball and caught the ball and the glove.  When he turned toward the dugout to see if his dad had seen it, E. J. was on his feet clapping, but when he saw the boy look to him, he immediately pretended he was swatting mosquitoes.  The batter was called out, the third out.  Jim ran back to the bench and stood by his dad.  E. J. sat chewing in silence and finally said, “I saw a man in Superior, Wisconsin, do that a long time ago.  But he did it at night and the ball was hit a lot harder.”[2]

What kind of encouragement is that?  That’s the kind too many of your kids get at home.  You can do better than that as their teacher.  Kids who don’t get much encouragement need it straightforward and in clear language they can understand.  If they think you believe in them, they may start believing in themselves, and then the bar they set for themselves starts getting higher and higher and higher.  Don’t hold back encouragement or couch it in some backdoor way; offer it.

I always found that the best encouragement teachers gave me was honest feedback on the work that I did: written feedback on papers or tests, even just a line or two, affirming what I did right, helping me to see how to do other stuff better.  Huge encouragement for me!  From grade school to doctoral work, the teachers that encouraged me the most, the ones that I remember the best, are those who gave me personal feedback in word or in written form.  It’s discouraging to write a 20-page paper and get a grade and nothing else, even if the grade is an A.  Makes a student wonder if the teacher even read the paper or the essay on the test.   I had some friends who put a nursery rhyme in their lengthy essay just to see if the teacher read it, and a lot of teachers didn’t.  I’ve had all kinds of teachers in regard to feedback—from none to some to a lot.  So I made it a point in the teaching I’ve done at Midwestern Seminary and OBU to give written feedback on the work that’s presented.  It takes more time.  But it’s worth the effort.  Many former students have told me that they really appreciated the fact that I took time and interacted with them and the work they presented.  Personal, honest feedback feeds the soul of a kid. 

Have you read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini?  Great book!  The central character is an Afghan boy named Amir.  The story is told from his point of view.  His father is prominent and demanding, a man unfamiliar with the ways of the heart.  But another man, Rahim, works for his father, and this man understood the heart and always took a special interest in Amir.  On one occasion, Amir had written a story.  His father and Rahim were in the room, sipping branding and smoking cigars.  Amir asked if his father would read his story.  His father declined, just sort of blew him off in a way that cut out Amir’s heart.  But Rahim took the story and said he’d be glad to read it.  And when he returned the story to Amir he handed him a note to go with it.  “Then,” says Amir, “he paused and added a single word that did more to encourage me to pursue writing than any compliment any editor has ever paid me.  That word was Bravo.”  The note itself was just as encouraging and closed with these lines: “My door is and always will be open to you, Amir jan.  I shall hear any story you have to tell.  Bravo.  Your Friend, Rahim.”[3]

Take time to give some individual feedback.  It’s encouraging.  It can put heart into a student.  It can call forth better effort and harder work.  It can build confidence in a kid.  It can make a Mary Ann Bird spread her wings and fly to heights she never imagined.  Give honest feedback to your students in whatever ways best connect with the individual kid.

And could I encourage you to be available now and then before or after school to meet with the student who needs a little extra encouragement and teaching.  I know you’ve got lives.  I know you’re busy.  And I know you can’t do this every day.  The kid’s schedule may not make that possible either.  But could you do it some, now and then, for those two or three kids in your class who need the extra encouragement?  You will know when it’s important.  You will figure out a way to do this.  And in doing so, you will communicate to that kid that she counts, she matters, you believe she’s worth your time and effort, and you’ll see a better student and a better kid as a result of that little lagniappe, that little something extra, you offer to the kids who need it most.

When you believe in kids and encourage them, I guarantee years from now, some adult is going to say to a friend over a cup of coffee in the break room in his engineering firm, “You know, if it hadn’t been for Ms. Crawford believing in me and spending a little extra time to help me figure out my calculus, I may well be spending my day asking the question, ‘Do you want to super-size your order?’”

And some other adult is going to say to a patient, “I don’t think I’d have become a dentist if Mr. Clark hadn’t encouraged me not to quit at biology but to take chemistry too.”

And still some other adult is going to say to someone, “My 6th-grade teacher is why I am a teacher today.”

Who knows?  One of these days some Mary Ann Bird might be writing about the forever difference you made in her life.

When you believe in your students and invest in the particular lives of your students, they will remember you the rest of their lives, and they will rise up and call you blessed someday whether you ever know about it or not.

In some ways this may seem like a lot to ask, but really, I’m just asking you as a voice from our community, to lay hold of the ideals that brought you into teaching and coaching in the first place.  (I know it wasn’t the money.)  So lay hold of those ideals.  Believe in those kids.  Invest in those kids.  You will be disappointed sometimes, and you won’t bat 1.000.  But swing the bat.  In the 1957 World Series between the Milwaukee Braves and the New York Yankees, Hank Aaron, the great home run hitter, stepped to the plate.  Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, ever the talker, said, “Henry, you’re holding the bat wrong.  You’re supposed to hold it so you can read the trademark.”  Aaron looked back at him but didn’t say a word.  When the next pitch came, Aaron hit it into the left field bleachers.  After rounding the bases and touching home plate, Hank Aaron looked at Yogi Berra and said, “I didn’t come up here to read.”[4] 

You didn’t become a teacher just to teach math or Spanish or industrial arts.  You became a teacher to impact the lives of students.  So swing for the fences.  And man!  What a difference you will make.

[2]Cited in “To Illustrate,” Leadership (Fall 2001), 79.
[3]Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (New York: Riverhead Books, 2003), 31-33.
[4]Cited by Mark Evans, Win at Life Wisdom (Little Rock, AR: Sullivan Ash Publishing, 2006), 17. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

God, the Prophets, and the USA

As we prepare to celebrate another Independence Day, I’m not in a very jovial mood about our nation.  While I deeply appreciate our freedom (which is shrinking) and the sacrifices of those on whose blood this nation has been built, I fear for our nation’s future.  

I’ve been thinking about the prophets and the nations.  Yes, the prophets were Jews.  And while they spoke words of judgment and hope for Israel and Judah, they also had something to say for God to surrounding nations too.  God is not just Israel’s God.  God is without borders or boundaries.  “The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness, the world and all who dwell in it” (Ps. 24:1).  God is sovereign over all nations, including the good old U.S.A.  So many of God’s intentions for the nations are announced by the prophets. The prophets themselves were rather quirky and their words often heavy, pointing out sins and calling people back to God.  The prophets have a way of exposing the lies we tell ourselves and the illusions we nurture about God and our world.  They have a way of reminding us that God is large and in charge and present and at work in the current events of our lives. 

Like Isaiah reminding us that the nations are but a drop in the bucket to our holy God, and that rulers are little more than grasshoppers in His sight.  God raises them up and whenever He chooses, He blows on them and knocks them down.

Like Habakkuk reminding us that God may use even more sinful nations than our own to bring judgment to our gates.

Like Ezekiel warning us that if a country sins against God by being unfaithful and God stretches out his hand against the country by means of sword and famine and wild beasts and plague, even if Noah, Daniel, and Job lived in that country their righteousness would save only themselves and not the nation.

Like Micah speaking out against corrupt politicians, priests who are in it for themselves, and a general population complacent to it all.  He calls us instead to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

And like Hosea reminding us that underneath God’s judgment is this stubborn love, a love that would prefer to pour out blessing, but yet a holy love that will eventually pour out wrath when His love is mocked and spurned and ignored over time—and just how much time, we don’t know.

Amos helps us too.  Amos was called away from his farm in Judah to preach God’s word to sinful Israel.  It was the 8th-century B.C. and Jereboam II was the king of Israel.  And while he was the most successful king of the North, while Israel enjoyed a season of rare prosperity and prominence, the country was a moral and spiritual wreck.  The rich got richer and the poor got poorer.  The rich oppressed the poor.  The courts were corrupt, injustice rampant, the prophets false, immorality abounded, and worship was insincere.  Still, Israel was feeling awfully big for her britches and assumed she’d have smooth sailing ahead.  She had a decisive king, a pretty strong military, and a pretty good treasury, so who needs God when you’ve got all that.  It was party time for the well-to-do in Israel, and Amos became the party-pooper.  He saw a storm brewing in the north.  He saw destruction and exile in Israel’s future.  He saw the wrath and judgment of God poured out on that nation.  And Amos preached what he saw.

Israel in Amos’ day and the United States in ours are not exactly alike.  But there are enough similarities to learn something from Amos for our day.  Amos shows us that when God sends judgment He usually does so after all kinds of opportunities for nations to turn back to the Lord in humility and confession and need.  So in the spirit of Amos’ prophecy in Amos 4, I offer these warnings for America in this season of our history.

“I allowed terrorists to bring your nation to its knees and while the churches were full for a couple of Sundays and folks sang God Bless America a thousand times, you did not return to me,” says the Lord.  Instead, you took your government’s advice and went shopping.

“I have allowed floods on one town and drought on another, yet you have not returned to me,” says the Lord.

“I have allowed fires in one place, hurricanes and tornadoes in another, and yet you have not returned to me,” says the Lord.

“I have have allowed inflation and recession and loss of jobs and the fear that comes with it to wreck havoc in your nation, and yet you have not returned to me,” says the Lord.

“I have allowed you to stretch your nation thin militarily and financially so that great calamity could befall you in the future, and yet you have not returned to me,” says the Lord.

Such happenings should call us back to God.  Such things should humble us.  Such things should remind us that our hope is not in politics or candidates or governments or armies.  Our hope, our only hope, is in God.

So, America and the American church, let’s humble ourselves, turn from our sins, seek the Lord God, and live.  God is patient.  But sooner or later God says, “Enough.”  Who will join me in praying for renewal and revival and the mercy of God on our wayward, sinful nation?  Though I’m not very hopeful, I’m praying we turn back to God before it’s too late to turn back at all.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Of Weddings and Funerals and Pastors

Every now and then, someone will ask me, “Pastor, which do you prefer to officiate: a wedding or a funeral?” 

“A funeral,” I say (usually to their dismay), “because funerals always take.  Too many of my weddings have ended in divorce, but everyone for whom I’ve ever done a funeral is still dead.”

Weddings and funerals are where pastors live.  I’ve officiated at a few hundred of both.  That makes us pastors something of experts on those subjects.  And today, at a funeral, as the door swung open to move the casket to the hearse, it struck me that funerals and weddings are really very much alike.  Here’s what struck me: when the chapel doors opened, the noisy conversation of people gathered outside the chapel sounded as much like a wedding as a funeral.  There was noisy chatter, some laughter, and just the buzz of a multitude of voices ringing in my ears.  If someone had blind-folded me and dropped me into that crowd, I couldn’t have guessed if I’d been dropped at a wedding or a funeral or maybe even a Black Friday customer line waiting for Best Buy to open.

Weddings and funerals do have a lot in common.  Both can cost the family a king’s ransom.  Both include something of an ending and something of a beginning.  Both invite tears, though usually for different reasons.  Both include, for some in attendance, the grief of letting go.  Both create, in our mobile culture, the rare opportunity of family reunion.  Both are rites-of-passage.  And for Christians, both are tied to worship and deeply connected to Christ and the church.

Oh, and one more thing: both usually call for a pastor to say a few words and perform a few rituals.  We stand before the people, praying that God will give us words that point people to Christ, that the attention will be focused on the bride and groom or on the deceased and her family rather than on ourselves, and that we can bring just the right measure of celebration and solemnity that both of those services demand.  Some pastors make it look easy.  It’s not.

So the next time you’re sitting in a church or a funeral chapel, waiting for the bride to enter or the pallbearers to take their place, would you please whisper a little prayer for the officiating pastor?  Pray that God will give him or her peace, words, and a demeanor scented with the fragrance of Christ.  And since for us pastors, funerals and weddings have so many similarities and often run together in our calendars, pray that we will never get the two mixed up. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

I Could Sure Use That Squirrel

While thumbing through the morning paper a couple of weeks ago, I came across a delightful story.  Brian Genest, a 17-year-old from Maine, was taking a walk through John Chestnut Park in Tampa, Florida.  He saw what appeared to be a friendly squirrel relaxing on a handrail.  Genest reached for his phone, put it in camera mode, and decided to take a “selfie” of himself and the squirrel.

Click!  Flash!  And the squirrel went berserk.  He jumped Genest’s back, crawled under his shirt, and did what panicked squirrels do in that situation.  It was not pleasant.  “He was just in that spot where my arm can’t reach him,” Genest said.  “I threw myself on the ground, and that scared him off.”

In a day when most of us are more into self-love, self-expression, self-fulfillment, selfishness, and selfies than we are into self-denial, self-sacrifice and self-discipline, we could use more squirrels like that one.  I know I could.  What if every time we were poised to do something self-centered, some squirrel jumped down our back—you know, enough to take us to the ground and get us thinking about God and others more than self.  I think I’d be more Christ-like, more a giver than a taker, and more Christ-centered and other-centered than self-centered.

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23).  Jesus calls us to keep Him at the center and keep ourselves on the edges.  God’s given us the Holy Spirit to empower us to choose the Lord and others over self.  And while the Spirit is a great help, my bent toward self is so pervasive I could still use that squirrel.  How about you?  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

He Never Knew the Difference He Made

Count me as one of those Americans who grieves the fact that most of our World War II veterans are gone now.  These are the men who impacted my life in so many ways, and America is diminished without them.  So on this Memorial weekend, let me share a story from a surprising email I received just a few weeks ago.

The email came via our church’s website.  It came from Michael Hurst, a Canadian, a Christian, businessman and historian who has lived and worked in Taiwan since 1997.  He’s devoted the past 17 years of his life to researching the story of the Allied prisoners of war held captive by the Japanese in Taiwan during World War II.  In the last 17 years, Michael has found and contacted more than 500 of the former 4,375 POWs who were held in camps there.  He wants their sacrifices and their stories to be told.

As he interviewed these former POWs, he kept hearing a particular name over and over again.  That name is Kenneth Scott.  Ken served aboard the Escort Carrier USS Santee, ship involved in rescuing and evacuating POWs from Taiwan in September, 1945.  Michael had been searching for Ken more than 15 years.  He finally found what he hoped was a connection through First Baptist Church of Hot Springs, Arkansas—thus, the shot-in-the-dark email.

That shot-in-the-dark hit the bulls-eye.  Ken had been a member of our church from 2001 until his death just after this past Christmas.  Michael wanted to find Ken so he could tell Ken what a profound difference he had made in the lives of so many of those POWs.  Numbers of those POWs told Michael that as they were on their way to Manila from Taiwan on the Santee, they received a visit from Kenneth Scott.  He came around to visit them and gave them a little Gideon’s New Testament and Psalms with a blue cover.  They were so moved at this act of kindness, and it brought them such comfort and encouragement to know someone cared for them.  Most of the men had lost all their possessions as POWs, and this was the first new thing they had to begin their new life as free men.  Some were helped greatly through the trauma they had to endure post-war as there was no PTSD counselling available back then.

Michael shared a couple of stories.  Here’s the first one:

Very early on in my work, one POW contacted me who had received the Testament and was still so thrilled that he cherished it and wanted to return it to either Kenneth or his family in memory of what he had done for him.  At first the POW sent me a photocopy of the cover and the inside page of the Testament to me help me trace Kenneth.  Later he personally gave me the Testament for our POW Museum collection and I have it and cherish it even more now.  When I visit schools and put on displays, I always include Kenneth's Testament in the display and tell the story of how this sailor gave it to one of the POWs after rescue.  People are always moved and blessed by the story.

And here’s the second:

I had another contact from the daughter of a former POW who had passed away in recent years and she told me that her father was not a particularly religious man but that he kept that Testament and cherished it dearly because of the act of kindness and love shown by Kenneth in giving it to him.  Later I received other notes and photocopies of Testaments and pages from other Santee POWs and they all had Kenneth's name written inside of them with exactly the same stamp and information.

Michael assumed Kenneth must have been a chaplain.  He was not.  He was a simple sailor.  Kenneth told me some about his war experiences.  His ship, the Santee, was among the ships involved in the first Japanese kamikaze attacks on American naval forces.  Ken said, “When those planes started diving right toward our ship, we really had to screw up our courage and just try to keep doing our jobs.”  He told me some stories, but he never said one word about giving the New Testament.  Not one word.  I don’t think his family knew anything about it either.

I suspect that Kenneth just did that because he was a Christian man trying to follow Jesus’ command to do for others what you would have them do for you.  He must have figured a New Testament would help mend his life had he been broken every way a man can be broken in a Japanese prison camp.  So he gave the Testaments.  Knowing Ken, I am confident he did it with no fanfare or search for notoriety.  He was just trying to share a witness of the love of God for men whose experience must have surely made so many of them doubt it.  And what an impact Ken’s small act of kindness made on so many of those men!

Now here’s the kicker: I don’t think Ken ever had a clue God had used his life to do such good and to give such hope to broken men.

Well, he does now.  Ken died at the end of this past December.  And what a thrill and surprise he must have experienced when waiting at the gate to greet him were many of those POWs who had preceded him there.  I can imagine the conversation:

“That New Testament changed the course of my life.”

“God used the message of that Testament to help mend my broken places.”

“When you gave me that Bible I had assumed everyone except my mother had forgotten me.  But you didn’t.  And God didn’t.  And trusting in the Jesus in that New Testament is why I’m here today.”

Wow!  It must have been incredible.  I can see Ken with a look of shock and surprise, quietly turning attention away from himself to the Lord who had come to greet him too.  And I can see Ken whispering to Jesus, “I didn’t have a clue.  I never even knew.”  To which Jesus smiled a broad smile and whispered back, “But I knew, Ken.  I knew.  Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your Master!”

Not all veteran stories are of military exploits and heroics.  Some are just Christian people acting like Christians in the midst of the violence and the death and the brokenness of war.  That’s Kenneth’s story.

What was it Paul wrote to the Corinthians?

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:57).


For more information on Michael Hurst’s work check out his website: