Friday, December 25, 2015

The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas - Day 12

I remember sitting behind a beat-up car at a stoplight: smashed rear fender, bald tires, trunk held shut with a rope, rear window cracked, and a sticker on a hanging bumper that read: “This is not an abandoned car.”  Christmas is God putting a sticker on the manger that reads: “This is not an abandoned world.”  When we could never reach up to God, God came down to us in His Son.  When we could never solve our sin and death problem on our own, God sent His Son to solve it for us.  So here’s the twelfth of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas: We are not forgotten or forsaken or abandoned—God is with us … and always will be.  Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas - Day 11

I know Christmas is about birth, but Christmas is inextricably linked to death for me.  My father died the day after Christmas, 1987.  My mother died the day before Christmas, 2008.  And you’d be surprised how many funerals I do around Christmas.  For me, Christmas is not just about a baby’s cry in a manger; it’s about the tears of people in grief.  Away in a manger?  Yes.  Away in a casket?  That too.  But there’s comfort here for those who know the Savior.  When infant Jesus was dedicated at the temple, an old prophet Simeon, who had prayed to see Messiah before he died, saw the babe and declared, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart (die) in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation ….”  Without Jesus’ birth there would have been no cross or resurrection.  Jesus’ birth got the ball rolling for the remedy to our death problem.  Now all of us who know Jesus can, like Simeon, die in peace, knowing that the One who came for us in Bethlehem is preparing a place for us in the Father’s forever home in heaven.  Here’s the eleventh of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas: the birth of Christ was the first nail in the coffin of the death of death.  Oh, and it also means we can grieve believing loved ones with hope.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas - Day 10

It’s not uncommon, even for believers, to look at all the evil and heartache in the world and think it even if they don’t speak it: Where is God?  Where is God in the wholesale slaughter of Christians at the hands of ISIS terrorists?  Where is God when the six-year old gets cancer, when a tornado rips through a quiet little town, or where poor people are starving and suffering from preventable diseases?  The question is legit.  So is the answer: God is with us.  Of all of Jesus’ Christmas names, I think my favorite is Immanuel—which means “God with us.”  Jesus left the peace, comfort, and glory of heaven to make a beachhead in Bethlehem in humble conditions, the child of peasants.  He grew up in obscurity and fulfilled His mission though a brutal death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.  And on the third day after, He rose from the dead in power and glory.  Where is God?  He is with us.   The manger shows us that no situation is too degrading, no experience too humbling what that God, in Christ, is with us right in the midst of it.   The cross shows us that no struggle is too great, no injustice too unfair, no sin too heinous, no grief too deep, no suffering too intense, not even death itself is so awful what that God faces it with us in Christ.  And the resurrection assures us that because Jesus rose from the dead and lives today, He is able to send us His Spirit so that He truly can be with us and in us everywhere, all the time, and in every situation.  Here’s the tenth of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas: Jesus is Godwithus: now and forever.   

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas - Day 9

When the angel showed up in Joseph’s dream and gave him assurance that Mary’s story about the child in her womb was leget, the angel told Joseph, “And you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  It took another 33 years or so and a cross and resurrection for Jesus to make that happen, but happen it did.  Through Jesus, we can have forgiveness from our sins—all of our sins.  That’s what He was born for in the first place.  So it seems to me that when we are born a second time through our faith in Jesus, we need to practice forgiveness too.  This hits home at Christmas when we are often forced into spending time with people we don’t like and people who have hurt us.  Oh the tension of those gatherings!  All that walking on egg shells!  All that hard work to avoid getting face to face with those with whom we are at odds!  All that fake-y niceness when we do and that phony-baloney wish of “Have a merry Christmas” when we really mean “Have a nightmare-y Christmas!”  Here’s a novel idea: why don’t we act like the Savior we worship and forgive those who have sinned against us?  It may not fix the relationship, but it will fix you.  And you will find new joy, fresh peace, and a relaxing of the tension that ties you up in knots.  I don’t mean to make it sound easy.  It cost Jesus a cross.  But hey, He’s done all the paying for forgiveness, so we don’t have to, nor do those who have sinned against us.  So when your swallowing down your egg nog or your Christmas punch, how ‘bout swallowing your pride too.  Forgive, give it to Jesus, let it go.  That’s a lot easier than carrying it around.  Here’s the ninth of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas: Jesus came at Christmas to forgive sinners; let’s join Him.  

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas - Day 8

For all the good Christmas does, it also accentuates pain.  The lonely often feel lonelier.  The poor feel poorer.  The grieving feel their loss more acutely.  Broken families feel more fragmented than ever.  What’s supposed to be a happy time, cuts like jagged glass.  The hurting often feel out of step with Christmas.  Many want to sing; you want to sigh.  Many want to laugh; you want to cry.  So hear some good news: God is not out of step with you.  He called His Son Immanuel on purpose.  The name means “God with us.”  God with the lonely.  God with the grieving.  God with the hurting.  God in the midst of broken families.  You may not feel Him but He is with you.  And if you’ll pray as best you can and wait on Him, He will show up in your life in a way as surprising as Him showing up as a baby born in a barn in Bethlehem.  So here’s the eighth of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas: Your circumstances do not, cannot, and will not change who Jesus is—God with us, God with you.  Oh, and for those of us who aren’t hurting at Christmas, let’s be with them too.   

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas - Day 7

When I was growing up it was the Soviets, the cold-blooded Commies, who ran roughshod over Russia and Eastern Europe.  They were America’s arch-enemies.  They were Lex Luthor to our Superman, the Joker to our Batman.  They wanted to destroy our way of life, rob of us of freedom, and cheat us in the Olympics.  We’re still uneasy with the Russians, but now Islamic Terrorists are the new enemy to hate.  And for some Americans, that means all Muslims in general.  Christmas throws cold water in the face of such hatred.  Remember the words of the angel to the shepherds about that Bethlehem babe: “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all people!”  All people.  Even Russians?  Yes.  Even Muslims?  Them too.  What part of “all people” don’t we understand?  Don’t forget that the Bethlehem Babe had the nerve to grow up and tell us to love our neighbors and our enemies.  And if we don’t worship the grown-up Jesus and do what He says, our worship of the Baby Jesus at Christmas is as phony as a 3-dollar bill.  So here’s the seventh of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas—this “good news for all people” includes our enemies, people we don’t particularly like or understand, and just as surprisingly, even us.  

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas - Day 6

Listen to the news these days and you’ll hear a common theme: Americans are afraid.  We’re afraid another Paris or San Bernardino terror attack is coming to a neighborhood near us.  So Christmas comes at a good time this year.  One of the messages repeated over and over in the Christmas narratives is this: “Don’t be afraid.”  The angel said this to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds: “Don’t be afraid.”  I’m pretty sure the angel is saying the same thing to us in this season: “Don’t be afraid.  That baby born to you in Bethlehem is named God-with-us.”  Christmas reminds us that God has His hands on the wheel of history.  Nothing happens that catches God by surprise.  Nothing happens that God can’t redeem.  And nothing happens to God’s people that can hurt us forever.  The coming of Jesus brought heaven to earth.  And “if we die before we wake” Jesus will take us from earth to heaven.  English poet John Donne said it best: “Fear God or fear everything else.”  So here’s the sixth of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas—don’t be afraid; God is with us and always will be.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas 2015 - Days 1-5

I intended to write a short paragraph for my Facebook page on each of the twelve days leading up to Christmas.  Just a simple thought for the day.  But because God seems to be using them in a much greater way than I would have expected, I decided to post them on my blog.
Below are the first five of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas.  I hope they encourage you in your walk with Jesus in this holy season.

Here's the first of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas: Herod was a punk and a cut-throat, but he did give some good advice to the magi: "Go and make a careful search for the child." Are you searching for the Christ-child in this holy season?

Why do you chase the "perfect" Christmas when the first Christmas was anything but perfect by human standards? The eternal King born in a filthy barn to working class people who were away from home because Caesar wanted his subjects to register to pay more tax—and it didn't even snow? Really? Do you think Mary and Joseph envisioned it this way? How 'bout we go a little less Clark Griswold this Christmas and a little more "shepherds in the fields keeping watch over the flocks by night"? They received Christmas just as it was with surprise and wonder and praise. So here's the second of The Twelve Thoughts for Christmas: quit chasing the perfect Christmas and start chasing Christ. You won't be disappointed.

Centuries ago the church assigned John the Baptist a place in the Advent story. And talk about wrecking havoc with a holly jolly Christmas. He’s an eccentric, backwoods, bug-eating preacher who dresses like a hick—more Mayberry’s Ernest T. Bass than Houston’s Joel Osteen. He’s a Johnny-one-note in his preaching and it’s not, “Merry Christmas.” It’s “Repent of your sins and live a life that proves it.” And instead of the warm-fuzzies we like at Christmas, JB has the nerve to preach fire and brimstone. No wonder Hallmark has never made a Christmas card with him on the cover. So here’s the third of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas—If you want to get the most out of Christmas, instead of indulging yourself, examine yourself: confess your sins, repent, and live a life that proves it.

A couple of years ago, I read an article on about the five greatest toys of all time.  And if you guessed that BB guns, bikes, Playstations, and Monopoly were on the list you’d be wrong.  According to the article, the five greatest toys of all time are a stick, a box, string, a cardboard tube, and dirt.  I’m guessing not a single parent is giving one of these gifts to their kids this Christmas: “Hope you enjoy your box of dirt.”  Truth is: it’s not easy to give the right gift.  If we do, there’s no surprise in it.  If we don’t, it means standing in long lines at the post office or the customer service desk.  God is really good at giving gifts.  On the first Christmas, God gave the perfect gift in His Son Jesus.  There was surprise in it, delight in it, and anyone who’s experienced this Gift has no interest in returning it.  Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving—love, life, grace, peace, joy: a whole stocking full of things that matter and things that last.  So here’s the fourth of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas—in terms of what occupies your energy and attention, make this Christmas less about gifts and more about the Gift.

“Reveal Parties” are a big deal these days for expectant parents.  And can some of these parents ever get creative!  Attenders laugh and smile and eat and enjoy themselves to no end.  But I’ve yet to see any expectant parent pull off anything like God’s “reveal party” for His Son.  An angel announcement first to Mary and later to Joseph who wasn’t buying Mary’s story.  No food was served.  No pink or blue balloons were displayed.  And it can’t be said that a good time was had by all.  There was more fear and trembling than joy and celebration.  Nobody was ever more surprised by her pregnancy than Mary.  No dad-to-be was ever more shocked at the news than Joseph.  But first Mary and then Joseph embraced God’s plan and did their part.  “I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary, “let it be to me according to your word.”  Here’s the fifth of The Twelve Thoughts of Christmas—if God reveals some surprising—even terrifying—call on your life in this season, say yes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thankful to the Bone

It was a first for me.  A lady broke out in dancing during a worship service.  It was January, 1986, and was in Jamaica on a mission trip.  I was sitting in the church worshiping with the people waiting for my time to get up and preach.  And suddenly, during the singing, a lady got up and started dancing.  Having been either a Presbyterian or a Baptist for my then 29 years of life, I can honestly say no one ever got up to dance during worship—not even once.  Well, I do remember a kid getting up and wiggling around during the song service in a Baptist church one time, but he wasn’t dancing; he had to go to the bathroom.  Nope, never seen dancing before in worship.

But this Jamaican lady cut loose.  It wasn’t really a frenetic jig, and she never jumped a pew.  It was more of a rhythmic movement, up and down the center aisle of the little church, twirling and swaying and raising her hands to God in praise and thanksgiving.  It almost had a ballet feel to it.  And there was nothing forced about it either.  You could tell it came from someplace deep inside her heart. “So what’s with the dance?” I whispered to the Jamaican pastor who was hosting us.  He kind of shrugged his shoulders, as if her dance was the most normal thing in the world, and said, “She just does it when she’s thankful.”

“Hmmm,” I thought to myself.  “That’s no skin-deep thanksgiving.  She must be thankful to the bone.”  And I couldn’t help but think of another thanksgiving dance I’d read about in the Bible—the day David brought the Ark of the Covenant home to Jerusalem.  The King practically danced out of his clothes.  Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson had nothing on him.

When David's wife told him how his spastic little dance embarrassed her to no end, David said, "Yes, and I am willing to look even more foolish than this.  I wasn't dancing for you anyway.  I was dancing for the Lord."  And David was so thankful to God that he treated everyone to a picnic so they could join the celebration too.  Like the Jamaican woman, David's thanksgiving was no skin-deep thanksgiving.  It was heart deep.  He was thankful to the bone.

Think through your blessings this Thanksgiving, and give thanks to God from the depths rather than from the surface.  Sing!  Shout!  Even do a little jig if you feel like it.  And could I encourage you not to worry about how crazy you look or how foolish you sound as you express your thanksgiving to God?  Some of the people who know you well may think you've lost your mind.  But God who knows you best and loves you most will be grinning from ear to ear.  He always does when we're thankful to the bone.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Twenty Years in the Same Church

It’s hard to believe, but I have served as pastor of First Baptist Church for 20 years.  Some of that time crept along, but mostly the time flew by.  You just keep showing up for work every day and before you know it, you’ve been there 20 years.  They threw an over-the-top celebration to mark the occasion.  This is the response I shared at the end of the celebration service.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes wrote:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
          a time to be born, and a time to die;
          a time to break down, and a time to build;
          a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
          a time to mourn and a time to dance;
          a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
That covers a lot of time and a lot of seasons—the kinds of times and seasons we’ve shared in our 20 years together.  So to say that we’re honored and touched and blessed and bit embarrassed that you would mark this occasion in such a big way just confirms what I’ve thought about you people for years: you are insane—insanely loving, insanely kind, and insanely generous to my family and to me.  
But you outdid yourselves this time.  Other than the fact that Kristen was singing, Nathan was speaking, and Rex was preaching, the staff did a very good job of keeping me in the dark on this thing.  (Of course, some of them have had a lot of practice at that over the years J)  So we are surprised and thankful.   
I’m rather amazed that something that got off to such a shaky start would last as long as it has.  My family came in view of a call to be your pastor in February of 1995.  You called us 400-something to 1.  (I think that 1 is still among us.)  So you called us, and after agonizing for a couple of days, I said “No.”  But God did some things to get my mind right in the next month, and when I called John Wayne Smith and told him I think I might have been hasty in saying “No” and was the door even cracked for me to reconsider, he said he’d check on it.  He did.  The church voted on me a second time, the opposition doubled but it was still a strong call.  This time I said “Yes”—though I wondered why a church would want to call a pastor who either can’t discern God’s voice or won’t obey God’s will or both.  But you must have been getting pretty desperate and called us anyway.  We came.  And here we are 20 years later.
Leonard Sweet writes about "causal time" (the time when one is making a difference) and "pausal time" (the time when one reflects on what kind of difference one is making).  In many ways, these last 20 years have been a blur.  So very much has happened in the life of the church and in the life our family: changes and capital campaigns and buildings and changes and mission trips and additional services and an additional Sunday School and changes in staff and a bunch of funerals and a lot of weddings and grandchildren and more changes.  I have to admit that I’ve spent a lot more of these 20 years in causal time than pausal time.
So the last month or so, I’ve tried to take some pausal time on these last twenty years.  On our way to Texas to see Kristen’s family in early May, Dayna and I tried to think of some significant event for each year of the 20.  We didn’t do so well.  It’s the blur I was talking about.  This week, I decided to look back at Messengers from 1995 and 1996 and see what I wrote to you in those early days.  And just as I suspected, I found nothing either profound or worth repeating.  I think I spent the first eighteen months in a daze.  We did a lot of stuff in those eighteen months, but I did it in a fog of grief and second-guessing myself and trying to learn names and figure out how to get this First Baptist ship out of the harbor and into the open sea.  Well, together—with trust in Captain Jesus—we cut the ropes, fired up the engines, and launched into the depths.  What a ride it’s been!  And though for all of us it’s involved challenge and risk and sacrifice and a storm or two along the way, it sure beats the heck out of being anchored in the harbor.
I guess it’s natural to give the pastor a lot of credit on days like this, but I know the real story of why this journey has gone so well: a gifted, hard-working church staff who love God, love this church, and are good at what they do; a church family that’s willing to embrace a vision in unity and put their time and treasure into it; and most of all a great God who decided, for reasons known only to Him, to just put His hand of blessing on this church.  Actually, I’ve always considered myself overrated.  Many pastors could have enjoyed here what’s been mine to enjoy these last twenty years.  That’s why I’ve often prayed, “Lord, please don’t let me mess this up.”  I can imagine Judgment Day.  I stand before the Lord and He says, “McCallum, I gave you a pretty good gig there in Hot Springs, and you didn’t louse it up.  Well done.”  And that’s when I’ll say, “If it hadn’t have been for you, Lord—for your mercy, your presence, your wisdom, your strength, your love for your church—I would have destroyed that thing long ago.  Thank you, Jesus.”
And thank you, church family.  You have done more for us than we have ever done for you.  You have allowed us to be ourselves rather than forcing us into any mold of what you think a pastor and a pastor’s wife should be.  You have loved us well.  You have been with us in good times and hard times.  You have pastored us more times than I can count.  You have tried to look out for my family and me far better than I do.  And in my ministry among you, you have listened to me, followed me, forgiven me, invited me into your lives, paid me more than I deserve, enabled me to do gospel-work in many places in the world, and best of all you have prayed for me faithfully.  We should be throwing you a celebration rather than the other way around.  You should at least get an endurance medal, if nothing else, because I don’t see how you listen to the same voice Sunday after Sunday for all these years.
And it’s been a lot of years.  I’m not the 38-year-old I was when I came.  I’ve grown a little older.  My red hair is getting blonder.  The little bit of hair I’ve lost from the crown of my head has moved to my ears and my nose.  The two things I was called when I came here—our “young” pastor and our “new” pastor—no one can call me anymore.  My 15 and 13 year olds are in their 30’s with children of their own.  But Dayna still looks like the 36-year-old she was when we came—which is pretty amazing because twenty years is a long time—just a fraction longer than a third of my whole life. 
Anyway, in reflecting on all of that, my mind was drawn to music as it so often is.  I was reminded of some lines from songs that express some of what I feel on this day as I think back and look forward.
·         There’s Neil Young’s “Old man, take a look at my life / I’m a lot like you.”
·         And Tevye’s “When did she grow to be a beauty? / When did he get to be so tall? / Wasn’t it yesterday when they were small?”
·         There’s Waylon Jennings’ “I may be used, but I ain’t used up.”
·         And Toby Keith’s “I’m not as good as I once was / but I’m as good once as I ever was.”
·         As I ponder the future, there’s John Denver’s “Though my life’s been good to me / There’s still so much to do.”
·         And The Beatles’  “Will you still need me? / Will you still feed me / when I’m sixty-four?”
·         And lest I ever let long tenure make me think this church belongs to me, there’s Steven Curtis Chapman’s “It’s all yours, God, yours, God / Everything is yours / You’re the Maker and Keeper, Father and Ruler of everything / It’s all yours.”
·         And Fanny Crosby’s “To God be the glory / great things He has done.”
·         And then one song more to sum it all up: Steven Sondheim’s Broadway song: “Good times and bum times / I’ve seen them all, my dear / I’m still here.”
And Lord willing and church willing, we’ll all be here together and continue to chase God’s dreams and God’s glory for this church for at least a few more years to come.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Beware the Ides of March

According to Shakespeare, by way of the Roman historian Plutarch, a soothsayer passed along to Julius Caesar this solemn warning: “Beware the Ides of March.” Caesar should have taken those words more seriously. In spite of the soothsayer’s warning, fearsome thundering, and his wife’s dreams of murder, Caesar went about his business on the ides, March 15, 44 B.C., and Brutus and about sixty co-conspirators stabbed him to death in the Roman Senate. I guess that's when Caesar got the point.

“Beware the ides of March.” I don’t remember if I first heard that phrase on one of my mother’s Shakespeare LPs or if it was in Mr. Larson’s eleventh-grade English class. Seems like that’s the year we read some of Shakespeare’s plays, including Julius Caesar, from which that phrase comes.

“Beware the ides of March.” The term ides was used to describe the 15th day of the months of March, May, July, and October. But thanks to Shakespeare, our contemporary understanding thinks only of the ides of March. When was the last time you heard anyone say anything about the ides of July? Probably never. “Beware the ides of March.”

But why March? I did a little internet research (you know what that means: I googled once and clicked twice) and much to surprise I found a site called “The Top Ten Reasons to Beware the Ides of March.” No kidding. The site reveals ten nasty things that have happened on March 15 across the centuries—among them: the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.; a raid on Southern England in 1360; a destructive Samoan cyclone in 1889 that sunk a bunch of ships and killed a bunch of people; Czar Nicholas II abdication of the throne to the Bolsheviks in 1917; Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939; a deadly Midwest blizzard in 1941; a world record rainfall of 73.62 inches on the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion in 1952; and the CBS’s cancellation of the Ed Sullivan Show in 1971. Holy Moley! That’s some nasty stuff right there. Maybe we should beware the ides of March.

Or maybe not. I can’t speak for you or Caesar or the Russians or the Czechs or the poor islanders who live on La Reunion, but the ides of March has never been cruel to me. The worst thing the ides of March means for me is that I only have one month left to procrastinate on my taxes. Other than that, I like March 15 just fine.

In fact, I pretty much like the whole month of March. I’ll admit it is a bit schizophrenic: comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion or is it the other way around? And it is the month when winter and spring seem to arm-wrestle for control. But all in all, especially in our wonderful South, March, including the 15th, is all right by me. Cherry blossoms and forsythia in bloom. Daffodils and tulips waking up from a long winter’s nap and dressing in their prettiest clothes for their coming out party. Spring break, spring training, and a spring in everybody’s step. Short-sleeve shirts. March Madness. Easter (sometimes). My big brother’s birthday. New leaves, green grass, bluebirds and robins. March is just fine by me. It takes me back to my high school days when some of my buddies and I would pitch kites into the March wind and fly them off Table Rock Dam. And in the present, even though I’m Scotch by descent, because of my last name and my redheaded countenance lots of people confuse me for an Irishman and wish me an extra hearty Happy St. Patty’s Day. And that's okay by me. So three cheers for March!

And that goes for the ides of March too. So in spite of the soothsayer’s warning to Caesar, I’m not going to beware the ides of March; I’m going to embrace it and live it and give thanks for it. The psalmist said, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” There’s no exception clause in that verse for March 15; God wants us to rejoice and be glad in that day too. So Happy Ides of March everyone … Happy Ides of March!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Have You Ever Heard Fred Preach?

My friend George sent me a brief email on Sunday: “Don’t know if you’ve heard but Fred Craddock died a couple of days ago.”  That’s a name that probably means nothing to you.  That’s a name and a man that means so very much to me.  Craddock is one of the four great influences in the way I go about preparing and preaching a sermon.

One of Craddock’s well known sermons is about John the Baptist.  The title?  “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?”  Well, I did when I heard Craddock’s sermon.  Have you ever heard Fred preach?  If you did, you’ll never forget him.  I know I won’t.

Fred was small in stature—think Zacchaeus.  I read where Fred often called his son, a much larger man than he, “a block off the old chip.”  But when he stood to preach he must have been nine feet tall.  I first heard him at the Hester Lectures on Preaching when I was a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in either 1979 or 1980.  And though he didn’t “preach” in those lectures, the preaching he described lit a fire in my soul.  I’d never been content with typical Baptist preaching: three points (alliterated if possible and forced if necessary) and a poem.  Within each point offer explanation, illustration, and application.  Tell ‘em what you’re going say, say it, tell ‘em what you said.  Every Sunday every sermon sounds like the Sunday before.  Pardon me while I yawn.  I’m not saying that such preaching is not biblical, nor am I suggesting that God doesn’t inspire and use that kind of preaching.  God has used that style for centuries.  A lot of preachers do it well, and a lot of Christians profit from it.   

But for a preacher like me, that style was like wearing Saul’s armor.  It didn’t fit who God wired me to be.  So Craddock, without knowing it, sort of gave me permission to be the preacher God was calling me to be.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming to preach like Fred Craddock.  Nobody preaches like Fred Craddock except Fred Craddock—the man was in a league of his own.

But some of the things that drove his preaching are the things that drive mine: humility, kindness, image, story, everyday life, subtle humor, a respect for words, a respect for the congregation, a desire to bring the Bible to life in ways that leaves the hearer engaged, occasionally surprised, and thinking, “Why that Bible story is my story.”  Craddock’s preaching reminded me that the Bible is a story before it is a book of principles, propositions and points, and that maybe, for at least some of us, we’d rather leave worship with a full heart instead of a full notebook.

Craddock was sometimes criticized that his sermons were weak on “application”—he believed it wiser to leave that work to the Holy Spirit and to the listener.  (I hate to admit that he probably trusts both more than I do.)  Yet I never heard or read one of his sermons when I wasn’t moved to respond in some way.  When I heard Craddock preach, God always got a little bigger for me and I wanted to be a better Christian.  Tell me what’s weak about that application.

Fred Craddock didn’t know me from Adam—never had a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation with him in my life.  Still, I feel like I’ve lost a friend.  Thankfully, he will continue to live on my bookshelves, in a few recordings of his sermons, and in the way I think about preaching.  The kingdom of God has lost a giant.  I’m just thankful that while he strode the earth, a little bit of his shadow fell on me.    

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Reminder from the Ashes

In this era of growing Christian persecution, I’ve been posting some martyr stories on my blog.  Such stories have the capacity to inspire faith and courage in those of us who come behind.
You’ve probably never heard of Maeyken Wens.  She was a Dutch woman, an Anabaptist, martyred for her faith on October 6, 1573, in Antwerp, Belgium, by “Christians” of a different stripe.  Her story has long touched my heart and stirred my faith.
Arrested for her faith in April, 1573, she was imprisoned in Antwerp until her martyrdom.  She used her imprisonment to write letters to her children and to a pastor or deacon of her church.  Those letters ring with a vibrant, free faith though exercised in her captivity.  Maeyken was sentenced to burn at the stake on October 5.  And to keep her from preaching Jesus along the way to her burning (as martyrs were often prone to do), the court instructed that her tongue be screwed fast to the roof of her mouth. 
The next day, her teenage son, Adriaen, took his youngest brother, three-year-old Hans, so that her first born and last born might be present at her death.  When she started to burn, Adriaen fainted.  He came to, and when it was over, Adriaen and Hans sifted through the smoldering ashes to find and clutch the screw with which their mother’s tongue had been stilled.[1]  That screw was a treasure, a keepsake, and reminder from the ashes of a faith that couldn’t be destroyed.
Do you ever wonder what your children or the people who come behind you will gather up from your faith when you’re gone?  Will you leave behind any tangible things: a marked Bible, a handwritten poem on an index card, a journal of some sort, some other kinds of writings, maybe cards or notes sent to you across the years by those who were touched by your life and faith?  Will you leave anything behind as a kind of reminder from the ashes of your life?
Some years ago, singer Steve Green made popular a Jon Mohr song called Find Us Faithful.  It’s a great song.  And the words of the chorus challenge me to live a faithful, Maeyken Wens kind of life:

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave, lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful

[1]From the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Family in the Killing Fields

Christian persecution and martyrdom is on the rise in the world.  We read stories every week about faithful Christian martyrs who treasure Jesus more than life itself.  Our hearts go out for them, our prayers go up for them, and our faith is stirred by them.  That’s why I’m using a few blog posts to tell some martyr stories.  While martyrdom is not yet at our door in the United States, one day it might be, it could be, and what then?  Will we be as faithful as our brothers and sisters in history and in other parts of the world today?
Here’s another martyr story—a family story:
In the village of Siem Riep, Cambodia, Haim, a Christian teacher, knew that the youthful black-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers now heading across the field were coming this time for him ….  Haim was determined that when his turn come, he would die with dignity and without complaint.  Since “Liberation” on April 17, 1975, what Cambodian had not considered this day? ….  Haim’s entire family was rounded up that afternoon.  The government called them “the old dandruff,” “bad blood,” “enemies of the glorious revolution,” “CIA agents.”  But here’s what they really were: Christians who sought to be faithful to a power higher than the government. 
The family spent a sleepless night comforting one another and praying for each other as they lay bound together in the dewy grass beneath a stand of friendly trees.  Next morning the teenage soldiers returned and led them from their Gethsemane to their place of execution, to the nearby viel somlap, “the killing fields.”
The family was ordered to dig a large grave for themselves.  Then, consenting to Haim’s request for a moment to prepare themselves for death, father, mother, and children, hands linked, knelt together around the gaping pit.  With loud cries to God, Haim began exhorting both Khmer Rouge and all those looking on from afar to repent and believe the gospel.
Then in panic, one of Haim’s youngest sons leapt to his feet, bolted into the surrounding bush and disappeared.  Haim jumped up and with amazing coolness and authority prevailed upon the Khmer Rouge not to pursue the lad, but allow him to call the boy back.  The knots of onlookers, peering around trees, the Khmer Rouge, and the stunned family still kneeling at the graveside, looked on in awe as Haim began calling his son, pleading with him to return and die together with his family.  “What comparison, my son,” he called out, “stealing a few more days of life in the wilderness, a fugitive, wretched and alone, to joining your family here momentarily around this grave but soon around the throne of God, free forever in Paradise?”  After a few minutes the bushes parted, and the lad, weeping, walked slowly back to his place with the kneeling family.  “Now we are ready to go,” Haim told the Khmer Rouge.
Few of those watching doubted that as each of these Christians’ bodies toppled silently into the grave which the victims had dug for themselves, their souls soared heavenward to a place prepared by their Lord.[1]
One of the compelling things about this story is the family dimension.  The whole family was murdered.  A father called his son back to join the rest of the family standing at the edge of their own mass grave.  Why not let the kid make a run for it—live to fight another day?  Maybe he would be caught and quickly, but maybe he would somehow escape. 
I don’t know if I could have done that.  That’s a part of persecution that scares me the most.  What if persecution involved the sacrificing of our own children or grandchildren?  “Denounce Christ and your children live.  Profess Christ and your children die.”  What parent would not respond, “Take my life and leave my kids alone.”  But in times of persecution and martyrdom such choices are seldom our own.
Here are some questions this story stirs in me:  Do I love Christ more than my family?  Do I truly believe that eternal life is better than this life?  Am I raising my children to love Christ more than life?  Am I teaching them and showing them how to live faith with courage? 
After talking with His disciples about persecution and encouraging them to have no fear, Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37).
Day by day and if persecution come our way, I so want my whole family to be worthy of Jesus.  How about you?  


[1]Don Cormack, Killing Fields, Living Fields: An Unfinished Portrait of the Cambodian Church—the Church That Would Not Die (Crowborough, England: Monarch Publications, 1997), 233-234. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Meet Dirk Willems

In the wake of Christian martyrs in the news (90 more Christians kidnapped by ISIS in Syria earlier this week), I am sharing a few martyr stories from church history.  Sadly, there have been seasons in Christian history where Christians persecuted and martyred other Christians of a different stripe.  Our history is hardly pure.
In 16th century Holland, the Mennonites were outlawed and, when caught, often executed.  One of them, Dirk Willems, was being chased across a frozen lake when his pursuer broke through the ice and fell in.  In response to his cries for help, Willems returned and saved him from the frigid waters.  The pursuer was grateful and astonished that he would do such a thing but thinking it his duty nevertheless arrested him.  A few days later in the town of Asperen, Willems was burned at the stake till he died.[1]
When Christ is deep in a person’s life, he is going to value others ahead of himself.  He is going to love his enemies and pray for those who persecute him (Mt. 5:44).  When Christ is deep in a person’s life she is going to be faithful no matter what the cost.  Don’t you think it’s important that all of us who know Christ seek to cultivate that depth of faith before the persecuting time comes?
Obviously, Willems didn’t just talk his faith, he lived it in the faith that as Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt. 16:25).  I wonder if Willems had second thoughts about his decision to fish his pursuer from the icy waters, especially as he was tied to the stake and as the flames began to lick at his body.  Who knows?  But we do know this: when Willems entered Paradise and the blessing of his Savior any second thoughts were vanquished.  “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

[1]Cited by Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), 213.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What If?

They did it again.  ISIS has murdered yet more Christians—21 Egyptian Coptic Christians brutally beheaded in Libya.  Their video also declared a commitment to take the fight to Rome and to all people of the cross.  Don’t expect much help from the White House.  This President and his closest advisors live in some alternate universe.  He still thinks global warming is a more clear and present danger to Americans and the world than “Islamic terrorism” (words he can’t even bring himself to say).  He thinks we Christians are on a “high horse” about all this.  After all, millennia ago our Christian ancestors conducted the Crusades to thwart the violent Islamic takeover of what had been sacred grounds to Christians.  I’m not condoning the Crusades, but to compare that to what’s going on now is … well … only possible for someone who is either history-ignorant or lives in an alternate universe.  But enough of that.  I’m not posting this blog to rag on the president.
I am posting this blog to state that persecution for our faith is coming.  Many would say it is already here in subtle ways.  But subtlety may one day give way to the fist.  A Facebook friend of mine posted a picture today of the Egyptians Christians lined up on their knees awaiting their beheading.  He wrote words to this effect: “Praying fervently that I could be as faithful as these martyrs should that day ever come for me.”  This is a wise and good prayer.
While most of us would like to think we would be “faithful unto death” (Rev. 2:10), I suspect none of us would know for sure until that moment arrived.  How do we prepare for such things?  Perhaps it goes without saying that keeping our faith current helps immensely—relying on a walk with Jesus that matters just as much today as it did years ago when we first trusted Him for salvation.  When Jesus is more like a friend to us than an historical figure (world history and our history), this might help us be prepared to suffer for Him.  Who would die today for George Washington?  I don’t know Mr. Washington.  But I know Jesus.  I’ve talked with Him today several times already.  I’ve sought to listen to Him in both my spirit and through the Scripture.  A faithful, current walk with Jesus will surely help us prepare for persecution.
And something else might help too: martyr stories.  Fox’s Book of Martyrs is a classic because it tells us of our mothers and fathers in the faith who were “faithful unto death.”  Such stories provoke both faith and courage.  So for the next few posts, I’m going to share some martyr stories in the hopes that such stories will provoke faith and courage in us all.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Jim Eliot who died at the end of a spear in Ecuador serving one of the Indian peoples there.  In writing his biography, Eliot’s wife, Elisabeth shared something that helps us understand why Eliot and his missionary friends were willing to die for their faith.  She wrote:
Jim’s aim was to know God.  His course, obedience—the only course that could lead to the fulfillment of his aim.  His end was what some would call an extraordinary death, although in facing death he had quietly pointed out that many have died because of obedience to God.
He and the other men with whom he died were hailed as heroes, “martyrs.”  I do not approve.  Nor would they have approved.
Is the distinction between living for Christ and dying for Him, after all, so great?  Is not the second the logical conclusion of the first?  Furthermore, to live for God is to die “daily,” as the apostle Paul put it.  It is to lose everything that we may gain Christ.  It is in thus laying down our lives that we find them.[1]
This quote doesn’t tell any of the grisly details of Jim’s death, but it helps us understand why he was prepared to suffer for his faith.  He died to Christ daily.  Let’s learn from Eliot in these uncertain times.

[1]Elisabeth Eliot, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life of and Testament of Jim Eliot (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1979), 9-10.