Wednesday, June 14, 2017

She's a Grand Old Flag

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress of the United States adopted the stars and stripes as our national flag.  That why we call June 14 Flag Day.  I usually let this day pass without much thought of our flag.  Sometimes I don’t even realize it’s Flag Day till the day is past.  Not this year.  I decided to pause for a few minutes in a busy and reflect on my memories of the United States flag.

Standing in my first grade class room, facing the flag in the corner, hand over my heart, saying “The Pledge of Allegiance” with my class.

The flag at Meadowcliff Elementary School flying at half-mast in the days after President Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963.  That’s the first time I saw a flag at half-mast—but sadly, not the last.

Images of the flag-raisers on Iwo Jima after our brave Marines wrestled Mt. Suribachi away from the Japanese at the cost of much blood and death.

Taking my turn in fifth or sixth grade raising and lowering the flag at Branson Elementary School and learning how to fold it properly.

Watching fuzzy black-and-white images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin staking our flag on the moon in 1969.  I understand it’s still there today.

Watching the USA Hockey Team in the 1980 Olympics waving our flag after their improbably gold medal.  “Do you believe in miracles?” Al Michaels uttered after we beat the Soviets in the semifinals.

The Lee’s Summit, Missouri, High School Band belting out “Stars and Stripes Forever” at their annual spring concert.  It always brought everyone to their feet.

The uncountable numbers of little flags attached to trucks and cars in the days after September 11, 2001.

A display in the Smithsonian of the tattered flag that flew over Fort McKinley—the very flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem during the War of 1812.

Numerous flag draped caskets at the graveside services of veterans—including the flag that draped my father’s casket, now folded into a crisp triangle that we keep in our home.

The presentation of the colors at numerous ballgames and thousands of voices singing The Star Spangled Banner.

Those are some of my memories. Not everything done under our flag has been good and right.  But on balance, our flag has represented some of the noblest, highest ideals in human history.  We are blessed to live in the good old U.S.A.  Our freedom has been bought with the price of other’s blood.  I encourage you on this Flag Day 2017 to take a moment, remember, and give thanks.




Tuesday, June 13, 2017

I'm Finally Above-Average at Something

Hooray!  I learned this week that I am finally above average at something.  For a guy who’s spent his life hovering around average this is really encouraging news!  I’m average size.  I’ve always been an average athlete.  I’m an average husband, an average father, grandfather, golfer, and singer.  My birth certificate says my middle name is Scott.  I’m surprised my middle name is not Average.  It could have been.  Hi, I’m John Average McCallum II.  I guess that means I’m average twice-over.  Average.  That’s not so bad.  Most everybody is average or they wouldn’t be considered … average.

Ok, I’ll confess that I do have some bright spots.  I have always been a slightly above-average student.  And while I’m not trying to be prideful, I’ve always thought I’m a slightly above-average pastor.  Now I know I am.  In fact, it’s been scientifically confirmed.  According to a March 1, 2017, report on Barna.com the average age of American pastors is 54.  Hey, I’m 60!  Boom goes the dynamite—I’m six points higher than average.  (I wonder if I should ask for a raise.)

What’s good news for me may not be such good news for the church.  On the one hand it could mean that America’s churches are being led mostly by seasoned, experienced veterans who bring a lifetime’s wisdom to bear on the work.  But on the other hand, it could mean that America’s churches are being led mostly by a bunch of crotchety old fogies.  Each church with an above-average pastor will have to figure that out for itself.

The sad thing about this report is that while the median age of pastors in 1992 was 44, only one in seven pastors today is under 40.  Yikes!  We need some younger pastors.  Pray, please, that God will call more young people into pastoral ministry.

But in the meantime, I’ll try not to gloat about being an above-average pastor.  Gloating is not in order anyway unless my gloating is in Christ.  I may be a C+ person and a B- pastor, but Jesus is an A+ Savior who can take even below average people and do extraordinary things through their lives.  And that doesn't just go for pastors, that goes for us all.     

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Single-Minded Focus

Please take a look at the picture.  The first time I saw it, I was sure it was photo-shopped.  But no. According to the Washington Post, this is a picture in real time. Theunis Wessels of Three Hills, Alberta, Canada was caught in the act by his wife Cecilia who snapped the picture this past Friday.  "I was keeping an eye on it," he said.

Twitter blew up over the picture with some great responses:

- No worries.  The fence will keep it out.

- In "mower" danger than he thought.

- The house may be gone but the lawn is immaculate.

- At least he won't have to worry about sweeping up the grass clippings.

- "Well, I don't see anyone else offering to mow the lawn."

- Metaphor for the Trump administration.

- When the wife asks you to do your chore or else, there's he*# to pay, a lot worse than that tornado.

- You think you're awesome but you're not mow your lawn in a tornado awesome.

You know what I see?  Single-minded focus.  Dude probably knew if he didn't get it done that day, he'd have to wait another week.  In the words of Larry the Cable Guy, "Git 'er done."  Theunis may be a bit nuts, but he got to check "Mow the lawn" off his Friday to-do list while his neighbors were cowering in their basements.

In his little epistle at the back of the New Testament, James writes that "a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways" (Js. 1:8).  There was nothing double-minded about Theunis.  The man was focused on the task at hand.  For a person like me who's a little ADD and too easily distracted, I tip my hat to Theunis.  He inspires me to single-minded focus as I go about my faith in Jesus and carry out my ministry.

Roger Miller, kind of big deal in the '60s liked to sing humorous songs.  He sang one that had this lyric:

You can't roller skate in a buffalo herd …
You can't take a shower in a parakeet cage …
You can't go a-swimming in a baseball pool …
You can't change film with a kid on your back …

But apparently you can mow your lawn with a twister at your back …
if you have single-minded focus.

I think I'll leave the lawn mower in the yard and take cover if I can see a tornado, but there are other things in my life I could do much better if I would approach them with the single-minded focus of Theunis Wessels. 








Thursday, June 1, 2017

I Treasure the Church

Rarely a week goes by when I don’t read some article bemoaning the decline of the church.  Some are growing.  Many are declining.  And even in growing churches members attend with less and less frequency, choosing sports or sleeping in or going to the lake over being in the church house to worship God. 

And can I just go on record by saying that I treasure the church—the church in general and the church I serve in particular.  The church has always been part of my life.  My earliest memories include stopping by the church library on my way from Sunday School to the sanctuary to pick up a book that would get me through the worship at the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Little Rock.  I still the remember the smell of Dottie Hilton’s stale perfume on those Wednesdays after school when she led our little children’s choir at First Presbyterian Church in Branson.  I remember so many things: Bible School, pot-luck suppers, Young Life, college group, camps and retreats.  As a kid I didn’t always find church interesting and I haven’t always loved every minute I’ve been involved, but I always knew I was loved, I knew I belonged there among that particular group of people at that particular time.  It was … family.

I treasure the church.  It was the church that introduced me to the exploits of these larger than life characters named Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Samson and David and Elijah and Peter, Paul, and Mary (not the singing group but the Bible folks).  They told me that they were in my family tree.  It was the church that taught me that I was part of something larger than myself and my town and my country; I was a citizen in the kingdom of God that stretches around the whole wide world and from here to eternity.

I treasure the church.  That’s where I first saw a cross and learned about a Savior who loved me and died for me and rose from the dead for me too.  That’s the one place I could be assured that even if I hadn’t given God much thought on Monday through Saturday, my attention would be brought back to Him on Sunday with words as simple as “Let’s pray … open your Bible … hear the Word of the Lord.”

I treasure the church.  It was the church that gave me my song and taught me to sing it:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound /
that saved a wretch like me.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty /
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

A mighty fortress is our God /
a bulwark never failing.

Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nature /
Son of God and Son of Man.

All the way my Savior leads me /
What have I to ask beside? /
Can I doubt His tender mercy /
Who through life has been my guide?

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord /
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.

At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light.

Up from the grave He arose! /
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes.

When we all get to heaven /
what a day of rejoicing that will be.

How many times have the songs I learned from the church given voice to my praise, words to my sorrow, hope to my fear, faith to my doubts, and carried me when I was weak!  And now the church is teaching me new songs that only add to the repertoire. 

I treasure the church.  The church has helped me see the world—not with the eyes of a tourist but with the eyes of God: eyes of compassion and love, eyes of concern for the lost and the poor and the people at the margins.  And the church has helped me do my part in reaching out to all nations.

I treasure the church.  When I was a child and my family fell apart, the church was there.  When I went off to college, the church was there.  When my kids were born, the church was there.  When there’s been sickness or surgery, the church was there.  When we had a crisis with our son, the church was there.  When my parents died, the church was there.  In good times and bad, in times of rejoicing and times of grief, the church has been there for me.  Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything and a season for everything under the sun, and the church has been there for me in every time and every season.

I treasure the church.  That’s not to say that the church hasn’t broken my heart along the way, that the church has never let me down, or that the church has always lived up to my expectations.  But that’s okay: I don’t love a perfect church and never have.  I don’t love the church as I wish her to be; I love the church as she is—with her warts and her wrinkles, with her saints and her sinners, with her allies and her critics.  I love the church when she’s gone down swinging and when she’s knocked it out of the park, when she’s soared like an eagle and when she’s limped like a three-legged dog.  Someone once likened the church to Noah’s ark: if it weren’t for the storm without, you could never stand the smell within.  But in spite of the fact that the church stinks it up from time to time, I treasure the church.

I treasure the church because the church has always loved me and because Christ has loved me through His church.  Christ has always loved me enough to challenge me and forgive me and encourage me and stick with me no matter what.  And Christ does just that through His church.  I treasure the church, and I value this treasure.

When I was a kid I collected baseball cards—from the early 60s to the early 70s I collected a lot of cards.  I wish I had known they would become valuable.  Then, maybe I wouldn’t have clothes-pinned Carl Yaztremski to the back tire on my bike so Carl could slap my spokes and make me sound like a motorcycle.  Maybe I wouldn’t have been so free to trade some extra Brooks Robinsons or Mickey Mantles or Bob Gibsons or Ernie Banks or Hank Aarons or Willie Mayses or Sandy Koufaxes for some guy I didn’t know but didn’t have his card.  Maybe I would have held on to rookie cards of people like Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt.  At one point, somebody gave my brothers and I a bunch of baseball cards from the 40s and 50s—cards of people like Stan Musial and Yogi Berra and Bob Feller and Ted Williams and Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson.  They weren’t in mint condition, some carried a bit of a mildew smell, but they were loaded with some great players.  When we went off to college, my mom started cleaning out closets.  She told us she gave all our cards to a young cousin of ours.  Didn’t think much of it at the time—just a little sting of nostalgia.

But when the mid-80s rolled around and people started opening up shops to sell classic baseball cards to serious collectors—my little brother and I often shook our heads and said, “We could have been rich.”  Here was this treasure in our laps.  We didn’t realize it.  And we certainly didn’t value it.

Christ’s church is a treasure.  Don’t trade it.  Don’t lose it.  Don’t give it away.  Value it.  It shows us Christ.  It shapes our lives.  It provides opportunities to impact eternity.  It stirs us to love and good works.  It encourages us when we need it most.  It gets us ready for heaven.  It makes us rich in ways that money can’t buy, in ways that last forever.  And guess what: you get to be part of it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Graduation Season: A Word for Parents

My son Nathan graduated from high school in 1998.  Wow!  That’s 20 years next year.  Can’t believe it.  Anyway, I was asked to give a parent’s response at his baccalaureate service all those years ago.  As I’ve spent the last couple of weekends with graduation activities for the high school seniors in our church family, I thought I might help parents a bit by sharing some of my remarks at my son’s baccalaureate 19 years ago.

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Did you ever see Fiddler on the Roof?  One of the classic songs to come out of that musical seems fitting for us parents on a day like today:

Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don't remember growing older.
When did they?

When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn't it yesterday when they were small?

Sunrise, sunset; sunrise, sunset;
Swiftly fly the days.

For most of you graduates, the speed of the last eighteen years may have felt like a round of golf on a busy day: hit and wait; hit and wait; hit and wait.  But for us parents, these years have felt more like a fast break in basketball; like an 80-yard touchdown pass—just a few seconds and it's over.  So cut us a little slack if we seem a little more sentimental, a little more nostalgic than usual.  Be patient with us if we run through a box or two of Kleenex dabbing our misty eyes.  This is all pretty emotional for us.  We're happy for you, but we're a little sad all at the same time.  It's sort of like swimming through a bowl of sweet and sour sauce.

You see, we remember.  We remember how our hearts leapt when the doctor told us you were on the way.  We remember lying in bed at night trying to come up with a name we could both agree on—we hope you like it okay.  We remember the thrill of holding you in our arms for that very first time.  And when we did, well, something happened inside of us that let us know we would be connected forever.  You were bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.  And if you have been adopted, you are the very child of our choice.  And we are bound together—bound in ways words cannot articulate.  We dads remember proudly pointing you out to others through that nursery window at the hospital—and even though we may not have said it out loud, we believed in our hearts that you were the pick of the litter, the finest looking baby in the bunch.  We still do.

And we remember taking you home.  Video cameras cost about a zillion dollars in those days so most parents didn’t have them.  But we had an instamatic camera, and we got plenty of snapshots of that Kodak moment.  Now I know you don't remember this stuff, but trust me, you were there.  And some of us parents can see it as if happened yesterday, and we remember it.

And we remember when reality set in.  We quickly discovered that you weren't a doll in a box.  You were a person, and you were determined to let us know that you were in the house and you were claiming your space.  You woke us up a lot those first few months.  We dads usually pretended to be asleep so mom would have to tend to you, but you woke us up too.  And before any teacher ever schooled you in the "three r's" of "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic," you gave us a thorough education in the three p's—pee, poop, and puke—and you were very undiscerning about when and where you did all three.  You took a lot of patience in those first many months.  I read about a young father in the supermarket pushing the shopping cart which held his screaming baby.  The father could be heard muttering gently under his breath, "Easy, Freddy, calm down now.  Everything's all right, boy.  Come on, Freddy, don't get upset."  A woman customer gave him a real pat on the back by saying, "You are very patient with little Freddy."  To which the young father replied, "Lady, I'm Freddy."  Most of us parents, we've been there—many, many times over these last eighteen years we've been there.

Parenting is such a roller-coaster ride.  We've walked with you from most of your firsts to many of your lasts in this era of your life.  We remember so many firsts with fondness: first tooth, first word, first step, first haircut—back when we got to choose the style.  We remember the first ballgame, the first recital, the first day of school, the first date.  Those firsts were happy firsts.  But other firsts were more trying: your first big sin against what you knew was right—that moment when we realized that you weren't as perfect as we hoped you were.  Then there was your first note from the teacher, your first trip to the emergency room.  And then when you started driving, well, that ushered in a whole new set of worries.  Many of us have felt like the dad who received this Father's Day card from his sixteen-year-old son.  The card reads: "Dad, everything I ever learned I learned from you, except one thing … The family car really will do 110."  And your driving offered some of us parents a few other firsts to remember: first wreck, first ticket, first court appearance, first community service.  And then, we struggled right alongside you with other firsts you experienced—like your first funeral of a loved one, your first broken heart, your first big disappointment.  Parenting you has been such a mixture of worry and rejoicing, celebration and sorrow, good times and hard times.  Just like life, I guess.  But it's been a good ride all in all.  There may have been a few times when we wanted to go to PTA meetings under an assumed name, but by and large, the journey has been a joy, and we wouldn't have missed it for the world.

So here’s some of what we want to say you graduates: "Way to go!  You survived us, and all in all you look to be in good shape."  How many of you are first borns?—raise your hands.  Well, you were the guinea pigs many of us parents had to experiment with and learn on.  Sometimes I marvel that my son Nathan is turning out as well as he is.  When Nathan was about three years old, I was trying to watch a Razorback game while he was supposed to be napping.  Very few Razorback games made TV in Kansas City, so I liked to devote full attention to them when they were on.  But Nathan wasn't cooperating.  He kept calling me for this or that, and I kept telling him to pipe down and take his nap.  It became a war of words that wouldn't have escalated if I had just gone in there in taken care of the situation.  But I was more interested in my game than I was in my son at that moment.  So I let it get out of hand.  I got so mad at his interruptions that I decided I'd fix him good … at the next commercial, of course.  Since he was being so mouthy, I determined to wash out his mouth with soap—and not just any soap, but dishwashing soap.  So I dragged him by his little arm into the kitchen, put a few drops of that slimy, blue liquid on my finger, and smeared it across his teeth and mouth.  Then he looked up at me, tears streaming down his sweet, pudgy cheeks, and do you know what he did?  He blew a soap bubble.  Then I laughed and he laughed and I scooped him up in my arms and gave him a great big ol' hug.  You know, I knew then that with a dad like me the kid was in trouble, but it's amazing what a little love and laughter and forgiveness can do for a family.  I hope there's been a lot of that in your family.  But even if there hasn't, you survived us.  You made it.  And now you get a fresh new start.  Still, however, let's make a deal right here: we won't tell all our stories on you, if you won't tell all your stories on us.

And graduates, we also want to say thank you.  Thank you for being you.  We delight in you.  We are so proud of you.  There is no way you can know the depth of our feelings until you stand in our place in about 25 years or so.  How we love you!  And how we thank you.  Thank you for including us in your lives, your world, your friends, and your dreams.  That means a lot to us.  And we say thank you.

And then we ask you something too: please be patient with us as we work at letting you go.  We've been working on that ever since you've been born, some of us with more success than others.  Whether it was presenting you to the church for baptism or dedication, watching you walk through the door of the primary school for your first day of kindergarten, running alongside of you steadying your bicycle and then giving you a gentle shove and cheering you on as you pedaled down the street on your own, we were learning to let you go.  Giving you car keys on your 16th birthday was another big step.  And now, as we celebrate your graduation and send you off to work or college, we are letting go most of all.  We are going to do it, but be patient with us and understand that it's probably a good bit easier for you to be let loose than it is for us to turn loose.

After all, literally or figuratively, we've been holding your hands for a long time.  And those hands weren't always so large as they are now.  They once were baby hands that squeezed our fingers.  Hands you used to play peek-a-boo.  Hands with which you smashed spaghetti into your face while trying to get it into your mouth.  They were small hands that turned the pages when we were reading you a book, tiny hands folded in prayer at bedside and at table.  And those little hands were the hands we parents held when we walked you across a street or through a mall.

But now those hands are big and strong.  Hands that in many cases dwarf our own.  Hands strong and gentle.  But hands that offer help to others.  Hands that hold the potential to do much good in life.  Hands that hold a growing responsibility.  Hands that will find new work and challenges to tackle.  Hands that will find new hands to hold.  They are strong hands, big hands all right—hands strong enough and big enough to hold a diploma and firmly shake the hand of the one who gives it.   


So use your hands wisely and well, okay.  We will let them go.  But we encourage you to put your hands into the hands of God.  And then, with our two free hands, we send you on your journey with prayers and this blessing—"You are our beloved sons and daughters, in whom we are well pleased."

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Bob the Servant

We buried a good one on Wednesday.  A giant has fallen.  Bob Deist succumbed to a lengthy illness.  He was on a cruise when his illness struck with a vengeance.  He made it back as far as Florida where he died in a hospital there.  I’ll just say it: Bob was better than most of us—surely one of the best Christians I’ve ever known.  And being a pastor for 35 years, I’ve known a lot of Christians.  Bob was also a personal friend.  In reflecting on that friendship in the funeral sermon, I shared this:

Bob was a great friend and encourager.  He prayed for me and with me.  He told me that my sermons helped him.  I don’t know how many things he’s installed or repaired in my house.  He’s been a great friend.  I heard Jay Leno say, “A good friend will help you move.  A great friend will help you move a body.”  Well, I doubt Bob would have helped me move a body, but he would have thought about it for a few seconds.  I’m thankful today for my last three encounters with Bob.  The Wednesday evening before he and Paula left for their trip I remember praying with him and watching him pull himself up from his knees.  Later that week before they left, he brought me an envelope of cash to use to help people in need.  And when I was talking with Paula while they were in the hospital in Mexico, Bob knew it was me, and I heard him say, “I love you.”

He will be deeply missed by so many.  Because I think more people should know a Christian like Bob, I’m posting the remarks I made as I welcomed people to his funeral service.  I hope his life inspires you like it inspires me.

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Hear God’s word from Acts 9:36-37 …

Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which translated means Dorcas.  She was full of good works and acts of charity.  In those days she became ill and died.

Peter got word of Tabitha’s death and headed for Joppa immediately.  Upon arriving, he found Tabitha’s body surrounded by widows who were crying and sniffling and showing Peter all the things Tabitha had made for them.  Peter put them outside the room, knelt down by Tabitha’s body, prayed, and then said, “Tabitha, arise.”  And Tabitha arose.  God raised her from the dead and the widows danced and sang and clapped their hands.

So Bob was on a trip.  He got sick.  Thankfully, he made it back to the states.  And he died.  And everyone who knew him, everyone he served across the years, wept.  We’d all be dancing and singing today if God had raised Bob from his death bed.  But God didn’t.  So Bob is doing the dancing and singing, and we are doing the weeping.

I wish I could say that Christians like Bob were a common lot—how different the church and world would be if they were.  But there aren’t many Bobs in the church or the world.  I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but I’ll just say it: Bob was better than most of us.  But he didn’t know that, and he didn’t think that.  And he never acted that way.  That’s part of what made him so unique.  Bob was the real deal—an example worth following.

When God called Isaiah the prophet, God said, “Whom shall we send?  And who will go for us?”  Isaiah replied, “Here am I, send me.”  Bob said that too: “Here am I, Lord.  Send me.”  And God sent Bob to a myriad of places and people locally and around the world to serve them.  God calls all of us to serve.  God gifts some of us to serve in exceptional ways.  But Bob Deist took service to a whole other level, made it an art form.  If there was a periodical called Servant Magazine, Bob would be the cover boy.  Bob was the epitome of a servant—any need, anything, anywhere, for anyone.  Bob was a jack-of-all-trades and could do most anything with his hands: have tools, will use them.  And Bob did these things quietly.  Service was never a photo-op for Bob.  Service was a Jesus-op—an opportunity to show and share the love of Jesus with those he served.  Bob didn’t serve for pats on the back.  He served to help people and give glory to God.  Bob set a high bar for selfless service.

In a church that is mission-active all over the world, Bob and Paula Deist were pioneers—mission service on several continents.  And they were doing missions before missions was “cool.”  And much of what they did was quiet and behind the scenes.  I had forgotten until our Hispanic Pastor Margarito reminded me this week that Bob and Paula were the ones who got mission trips going to Mexico—and oh, the kingdom good that’s come of that!  Bob lived Matthew 25.  In mission and service, in generosity and love, Bob served “the least of these” brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Bob was also a pastor’s friend.  For years he met with a couple of other men and me every Wednesday night to pray for each other and for the needs of the church.  Bob was a man who liked to get things done with his hands, but he understood that the things that matter most and last forever cannot get done without prayer, without God’s hands being in the mix.

Someone once said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”  Bob didn’t say that, but he lived that.  Even in his sickness, he lived that.  Bob, like Jesus, just went about doing good.  Bob the friend, Bob the encourager, Bob the Christ-follower, Bob the servant, will be greatly missed.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A Missionary Story

So I just returned from a week in South Africa.  A team from our congregation served more than a 100 missionaries and their families at their annual cluster meeting.  Three of us led worship each day.  One, a retired missionary, shared his story and mentored other missionaries at the meeting.  The rest of the team provided a Vacation Bible School experience for the missionary children.  It was a great experience for our team.  It was new for me in mission experience.  This is the first time I went overseas to work with missionaries rather than with the local population.

I was blessed to interact with a number of missionaries.  Good news!  God is moving across southern Africa.  People are being saved.  Disciples are being made.  Churches are being planted.  The kingdom of God is taking more and more territory from the enemy.  Powerful stuff.  I often found myself quietly praying, “God, please do this in America too.”

I heard lots of stories.  I want to tell you one.  To protect the missionary’s security, let’s call him George.  George is a single man, never married.  And it’s not because he doesn’t want to be.  During his missionary training, he met a woman he pursued for marriage.  It seemed like a match made in heaven.  They both love Jesus.  They both have a heart for the gospel and for the nations.  But as they prepared to seek a mission assignment, they discovered health issues that would keep George’s fiancé from ever getting to the field. 

What a dilemma!  If they marry, the mission field is out.  They could serve God in the States, but they couldn’t take the gospel to the nations, to people who have never heard, to the people God had put in their hearts.  They prayed, talked, agonized about it.  And one phrase rose to the surface over and over again in their deliberations: “the preeminence of the gospel.”  So George and his fiancé put their impending marriage on the altar and sacrificed marriage for the mission field.

That was 20 years ago.  George’s fiancé didn’t forget George and look for a husband who could care for her in the States.  She is George’s prayer coordinator in the States.  She never married either.  She continues to be a valuable part of George’s mission ministry (their mission ministry) through her prayers and communication for him with their partners in America.

And you know what?  They hold not one ounce of bitterness over this.  There is no anger toward God.  There is no lingering regret or second-guessing their decision.  Before they were devoted to one another, they were devoted to God, to the nations, and to the preeminence of the gospel.  It will probably come as no surprise to you that God is using George in incredible ways on the mission field.

That’s just one story.  I could tell others.  But stories like George’s led me to say to them on my last day with them …


Whenever I am with missionaries I always receive so much more than I give.  I am challenged to the core by your devotion to God and to the nations.  And I can’t help but think of one line in the faith chapter in Hebrews 11 where the author describes these faithful people as “those of whom the world is not worthy.”

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ash Wednesday 2017

I remember attending an ecumenical prayer breakfast years ago in Kansas City.  The speaker was Kansas City’s mayor Emanuel Cleaver.  Cleaver was also a Methodist minister and is now a U.S. Congressman.  He told a story about a very cold bird on a very cold day.  The poor little bird lived in the country and was trying to find a little warmth on the ground near a barn.  As he shivered there, steeling himself against the bitter wind, a horse passed by, and the bird soon found himself surrounded by a nice warm pile of manure.  Grateful for the warmth, the bird broke into song.  A barn cat heard him singing, pounced on him, dug him out, and ate him up.  Cleaver said there are three lessons we can learn from this story.  (1) Not everyone who dumps on you is your enemy.  (2) Not everyone who digs you out is your friend.  And (3) if you’re ever up to your neck in it don’t sing.

Ash Wednesday might be one of those times when we don’t sing.  Ash Wednesday begins the forty days of Lent leading up to Easter.  The season of Lent is a period of fasting and penitence traditionally observed by Christians in preparation for Easter.  The length of the Lenten fast, during which observants eat sparingly, was established in the fourth century as 40 days.  In the Western churches, where only Sunday is regarded as a festival, the 40-day period begins on Ash Wednesday and extends, with the omission of Sundays, to the day before Easter.  The observance of fasting and other forms of self-denial during Lent varies within Protestant and Catholic churches.  But Baptists have historically done very little with this season, preferring to wait until Holy Week to pay much attention to these important days in Jesus’ ministry.

As the front door of this reflective season, when the pastor applies the ashes to the forehead of believers he does so by quoting a phrase from Genesis 3:19: “For you are dust and to dust you will return.” 

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of death.  It’s way of saying to self-important people like ourselves who have access to the best medical care in the world, a drug for whatever ails us, and a fitness center on every corner, that we are going to die.  And age isn’t the deciding factor.  Among the last several funerals I’ve conducted were funerals for a 34-year-old woman and a 42-year-old man, both of whom had so very much to live for.  Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality. 

Ash Wednesday reminds us of Hebrews 9:27 – “It is appointed unto man once to die.” 

Ash Wednesday reminds us of James 4:14 – “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Ash Wednesday reminds us that while you have been to the funeral of others, one day the funeral will be your own.  It will be your body in the casket or your ashes in the urn.

Ash Wednesday is a sobering day.  It is not a day for frivolity.  It is a day for reflection.  It is a day that launches us into a holy season that appeared to end with the death of Jesus on the cross and his burial in the grave.  I say “appeared” to end with Jesus’ death because Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.  We don’t want to rush the story, but we don’t want to ignore the story either.  Our Savior is not just the crucified Christ; He is the crucified / resurrected Christ.  He lives today.

That is what gives us hope as we contemplate our death, as we reflect on the day when our heart beats for the last time and when that little death gasp in the last breath will be our own, as we ponder the fact that one day, someone you know will answer her phone and this is the message she’ll hear: “Did you hear the news?  John (and put your own name here) died today.”  Praise God Jesus defeated death through His death and resurrection.  That’s our hope for our own death.

And that is also our hope for the 100 little deaths before we breathe our last.  You know what I’m talking about:

·         The little death you died when your parents got divorced.

·         The little death you died when you got divorced.

·         The little death you died when you stood over the grave of a spouse, a child, a parent who meant the world to you.

·         The little death you died when you discovered you were addicted to drugs or alcohol or pornography, and the little death you die every time you indulge in these behaviors.

·         The little death you died when you got the cancer diagnosis or found out you had Alzheimer’s disease.

·         The little death you died when your good friend betrayed you.

·         Even the little deaths kids die when they don’t make the team or don’t get the scholarship or blow their part in the concert or get rejected by some girl or boy on whom they have a king-size crush.

We’re talking little deaths that take a little of the life out of us when we face them.  Little deaths that, in the moment, seem like a big death and leave us hurt and reeling and broken.  Sure, we get over them in time, and often find God uses this brokenness to do good work in and through our lives.  But in the moment, it feels like a kind of death.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we die these little deaths before our final death and that there is hope for us in these little deaths too.  Because Jesus expereienced rejection and grief and pain and suffering and betrayal, He died little deaths like we do.  And Jesus also died the final death too.  Because he died these deaths, He understands us.  He is sympathetic to us.  He is with us.  And because He was raised from His final death, He is a living Savior who can give us hope as we face whatever kinds of death come our way.

Tom Long tells this story.  A friend of his is a hospital chaplain in Louisville, Kentucky.  He left the hospital shortly before noon and attended a service at a nearby church.  As a part of the worship the minister inscribed on the chaplain’s forehead a cross made of ashes mingled with oil.

He returned to the hospital, ashes still in place, and began to visit the patients.  One of the patients, a woman, who liked to put on a strong appearance and pretend her illness was no big deal, noticed the ashes on his forehead.  Thinking it was a smudge of dirt, grabbed a tissue, spit on it, and said, "Come here, hon, you've gotten into something.  There’s some dirt on your forehead."
 
The chaplain artfully dodged the tissue and said, "No, they are ashes. They're supposed to be there."  She looked at him, puzzled.  So he told her about the meaning of Ash Wednesday, how the day meant that God was with us when we were weak and vulnerable, how we were but dust, ashes, and God was with us taking us toward Easter even when life was broken, tragic, and sad.  He told her, “It’s a sign that God loves me when life goes to hell.”

The woman reached up and took some of the ashes, marked a cross on her forehead, and said, “I think I need some of that.” 

Don’t we all.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Oh the Things People Say


I was called to ministry in June, 1974.  Preached my first sermon two months later … and I’ve been preaching ever since—an every Sunday preacher since February, 1981.  That’s a lot of sermons.  And I’ve preached in all kinds of places: campgrounds, small churches, large churches, white churches, black churches, college and seminary chapels, Jamaica, France, Russia, India, the Czech Republic, Africa, Honduras.  I’ve even preached in Texas.  I’ve preached with translators.  And I’ve preached to English-speaking congregations that probably wished I had a translator.  We’re talking thousands of sermons, after which many listeners file by to shake my hand.  Some smile and nod.  Others speak.  And oh the things people say.  Some offer the obligatory, “I enjoyed that”; “Good word”; “Thanks for the sermon.”  But some say more interesting things.  In fact, this past Sunday I received the highest compliment I’ve ever received after a sermon.  But before I get to that, let, me share some other things I’ve heard:
 
From some elderly ladies in Branson, Missouri: “Oh, you’re going to be the next Billy Graham.”  (I’m pretty sure most every preacher boy hears that when they are just getting started.)
 
From more than one person in Jamaica: “I walked five miles to get here.  Please preach a longer sermon.”  (No American ever said that to me.)
 
From a highly literate man in Missouri: “Want to know how many times you said ‘you know’ in your sermon?  I counted them.”  (At least he was moved by the content of the message.  Not!)
 
From a lady in Missouri: “It’s about time you said something about the role of women in church.”  (I didn’t say anything the role of women in the church.  How she heard that I’ll never know.)
 
From a man in Loseeny, Russia: “So, are you rich?”  (He was obviously more interested in the messenger than the message.)
 
From a lady in Arkansas: “That tie doesn’t really match.  You ought to let your wife pick out your clothes.”
 
From a man in Arkansas: “You were kind of brief today.  I like it.  And just so you know, nobody ever complains about a bad short sermon.”
 
From somebody in most every church: “Can you have somebody turn up the heat next Sunday?  I nearly froze to death today.”
 
From another lady in Arkansas: she didn’t speak to me after the sermon but sent me a letter: “That was an appalling use of the Scripture.”  And with the letter she sent a book on how to interpret the Bible.  It’s a good book.
 
Oh the things people say!  And of course, I’ve also heard comments from people who were engaged, helped, moved, and/or challenged by the sermon.  I heard from one of those this past Sunday: best compliment I’ve ever had after a sermon.  It came from a man about my age.  He came through the line, took my hand, leaned in toward my ear, and whispered so no one else would hear: “I’ve never had my butt so thoroughly chewed and enjoyed it so much.  Thanks.  I needed that.”
 
Score!
 
There are two things I want to saturate every sermon I preach: grace and truth.  And this man’s response to my sermon told me I hit that mark on Sunday: “I never had my butt so thoroughly chewed” (truth); “and enjoyed it so much” (grace).  The truth didn’t beat down, it lifted up.  The truth didn’t maim, it healed.  The truth didn’t destroy, it gave life.  The truth didn’t shackle, it set the listener free.  Truth does this when it’s seasoned with grace.
 
Oh the things people say!  It can be funny, off the wall, disconnected, encouraging, and even a little painful now and then.  I can’t control the things people say and don’t want to.  I can only pray and work to the end that the things I say will be, like Jesus, full of grace and truth.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Wrestling with God When the Good Die Young

I had the honor of participating in the funeral of a friend of mine on Wednesday.  He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about ten months ago.  He early Monday morning.  He was only 42 years old.  He leaves behind his wife Brooks, two young children, parents, siblings, and friends.  It's hard for us to make sense of such things.  How do we honor our questions and our faith at the same time.  That's what I tried to wrestle with in my remarks.  I'm posting them on my blog for two reasons: first, if you didn't know Phillip, you need to; and second, perhaps my remarks will help you as wrestle with your questions and your faith. 
 
****************

The Bible says …
 
God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains slip into the heart of the sea.  Be still and know that I am God.  The Lord almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
 
And do we ever need refuge, strength, and help today!
 
Well, I guess I’ll just say what many of us are feeling: this is really hard.  A God-fearing, God-loving man gets a horrible cancer.  We pray and pray and pray for God to intervene, to relieve suffering, to get well enough for immune-therapy, to heal.  And here we are at Phillip’s funeral today.  It just doesn’t make much sense to us, does it?
 
I remember a few visits with Phillip and Brooks when they were having a hard time getting pregnant and staying pregnant till term.  I remember a failed adoption effort.  How frustrating it was for them.  I remember the incredible joy when God answered prayers, the pregnancy took, and God gave them Noah … and then the extra blessing two years later with Hannah.  I remember the happiness, the joy, the opportunity they thought they might never have to raise children.  Noah is 6, Hannah is 4, and here we are at Phillip’s funeral.  This is hard.
 
But here we are … in a church that nurtured Phillip and Brooks … refusing to let our doubts outweigh our faith, refusing to let our feelings dictate our theology, stubbornly holding on to the truth that God is rock steady even when we’re not.  We are exercising the same faith as those in Israel who, in spite of their many hardships, would sing this psalm in worship, even if through gritted teeth, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”
 
Early in my pastoral career, I really looked up to a man named Melvin Hill.  He had been a pastor for about thirty years, and then took the job as the Director of Missions for the association in which I served.  There was more than one time when I called or visited Dr. Hill to get a little advice, a little coaching, on one church situation or another.  Like Jesus, Melvin was the kind of man who just went about doing good.  I couldn’t believe it when he was diagnosed with cancer.  “God, why?” I asked.  “All he does is serve you.  All he does is help pastors and churches.  Why him, God?  And if he must have cancer, why not heal him?  He’ll give you the glory.  He’ll give you the praise.”  It was not the first time and it wouldn’t be the last when I would wonder if God is as good as the Bible claims He is.
 
After a couple of rounds of treatment that weren’t going so well, Melvin wrote an article in our associational newsletter.  It helped me.  This is what he wrote:
 
We must all accept life one day at a time, trusting God and using every day to serve Him.  That is what I intend to do, hoping for many more years to serve Him, but trusting Him to plan my life.  We are all in His hands, and they are good hands.
 
Those would be the last lines Melvin ever wrote.  He died shortly thereafter.  He fell asleep in his hospital bed and woke up in glory.  And you know what?  I wouldn’t be surprised if his last words on this earth and his first words in heaven were these: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.  His steadfast love endures forever.”
 
I wouldn’t be surprised if those were Phillip’s first words in heaven too.
 
But we still have our questions.  We struggle with this.  We are not the first persons to do so.  There’s a glorious yet haunting story in John’s gospel about Jesus’ friend Lazarus.  Lazarus was sick.  He was sick unto death.  His sisters, Mary and Martha, sent Jesus word, asking Dr. Jesus to make a house call, lay His hands on Lazarus, and make him well.  “Lord,” the message said, “the one you love is ill.”  Jesus got that word.  And Jesus did nothing.  Check that: the Bible says He did this: “So, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”  If Lazarus ended up dying, Jesus couldn’t plead ignorance.  Jesus got the word and stayed where he was for two whole days.  It appears He was deliberately waiting for Lazarus to die.
 
And sure enough, Lazarus died.  “All right, men,” Jesus said to His disciples, Lazarus has fallen asleep, and it’s time for me to go wake him up.”  The disciples breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Well, that’s good news.  If he’s fallen asleep, he’s on the road to recovery.”  Jesus just shook His head and said, “Not sleep as in sleep but sleep as in dead.  Lazarus is dead.  It looks bad now, but trust me.  When I get through, you’re going to be amazed and you’re going believe in me more than you ever have.” 
 
When they arrived on the outskirts of Lazarus’ place in Bethany, the mourners were all there.  Lazarus wasn’t laid out in a room; he was already in the tomb.  He was four-days dead.  Martha met Jesus first and she wasn’t all that glad to see Him: “Lord, if you’d have been here, my brother would not have died.” 
 
Might have a stung a little.  Jesus replied, “Your brother will rise again, Martha.”
 
“Yeah, I know,” said Martha, “he’ll rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
 
And Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me, even though he’s dead, yet shall he live.  The one that lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this, Martha?”
 
“Yeah, yeah yeah.  I believe you’re the Christ the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
 
So Martha went and fetched Mary.  Mary sang the same sad song, “Lord, if you’d have been here, my brother would not have died.”
 
And when the crowd of mourners saw Jesus, even they piled on: “Couldn’t this one who opened blind eyes have kept this man from dying?”
 
And in case you don’t know the rest of the story, Mary and Martha didn’t have to wait till the resurrection on the last day for Lazarus to be raised from the dead.  Jesus raised Lazarus that day.  It was big deal.
 
And here’s the deal for us: Phillip has died, and he is going to rise again too.  But we’re going to have to wait for the last day.  We’re not going to get him back today.
 
So maybe some of us feel about Jesus like Mary and Martha and the crowd felt about Him.  “Lord, if you’d have been here, Phillip would not have died.”
 
Could I suggest to you, that the Lord has been with Phillip all along?
 
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip in the many acts of kindness Phillip did for so many of us?  He certainly made me look good with my wife when he arranged flowers for her?
 
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip through his creative genius?  The guy had magic hands.  He was one of those good old Delta boys who could build anything, fix anything, and create something where nothing was there before.
 
I saw Jesus with Phillip and Brooks when we talked about them joining our church.  I went home and said to Dayna, “Now that’s a pleasant couple who aren’t considering our church as consumers but as serious followers of Jesus.”
 
I saw Jesus with Phillip on a mission trip in Senegal where he loved on the locals and served them gladly.
 
Didn’t you see Jesus in the way Phillip went about his work: 110% all the time?  Did he ever do any work for you when he didn’t give you more than expected?  He did the flowers for our son’s wedding, and he decided to make a couple of benches to go with the flowers.  I saw Jesus in that dedication to his work.
 
I saw Jesus in the way he handled his flower business.  I don’t know about Jonesboro but we’ve got some snooty people in Hot Springs, and Phillip was occasionally on the receiving end of that snootiness when he did some flower work for them.  I know it bugged him, but he returned kindness for meanness every time.  Don’t you see Jesus with Phillip in that?
 
And I’m sure Jesus was with Phillip when he did all kinds of behind-the-scenes things for people that we don’t even know about it.  I know Jesus was there because Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”
 
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip in the way he loved the church—a little teaching, a little singing, a little drama, a little missioning, a little deaconing.
 
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip in the way he loved his family: devoted, protective, provider, all in?  His wife and children never had to ask themselves the question, “Does he really love us?”
 
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip in the way he faced his illness: courage, faith, hope?  When I asked him how things were with his soul a couple of months ago, he said, “That’s the best part.  In spite of the struggle, my faith is strong.”  He and his family have suffered like Christians.
 
Didn’t you see Jesus with Phillip in the way many of you offered love and support to him and the family during these days: neighbors, work, family, friends?  You were Jesus’ hands and feet for them.
 
We’ve got to get past this knee-jerk theology of God’s presence.  Some guy is in a horrible car wreck.  Car is totaled.  The guy walks away with a couple of scratches.  Our knee-jerk theology is quick to say, “Wow!  The Lord was surely with him.”  But you notice how you never hear anybody say that when the guy dies in the wreck? 
 
Just because Phillip died doesn’t mean the Lord wasn’t there.  Jesus is no stranger to death.  Jesus does not cower before death.  Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.  Jesus is a living Savior who shepherds His children through the valley of the shadow of death and gets us all the way home to the Father’s house where we will live forever. 
 
As a child, Phillip put his trust in Jesus.  He turned from his sins, believed in Jesus, and Jesus saved him.  When Jesus saves, He saves forever.  So Jesus was there for Phillip all along.  He was with him as he was growing up in Vanndale.  He always had a lot of Vanndale stories proving that you can take the boy out of Vanndale but you can’t take the Vanndale out of the boy.  Jesus was with Phillip in his schooling and his football and his just being a boy.  Jesus was with Phillip when he went off to college.  Jesus was with Phillip when he met Brooks.  Jesus was with Phillip when he got his first job out of college and traveled all over the world.  Jesus was with Phillip when he moved to Hot Springs and then back to Jonesboro again.  Jesus was with Phillip when the doctor said, “You’ve got pancreatic cancer.”  And Jesus was with him every day since.  And Jesus was there early Monday when Phillip finished his race, broke the tape, and fell into the arms of Jesus in heaven.  The Lord has been with Phillip all life long and with him closer than ever even now.
 
Phillip is with Jesus today.  Of course, we’d rather have him with us.  But since he can’t be with us, how grateful we are that he is with Jesus!  How grateful we are that death didn’t get the last word; life gets the last word.  Phillip is strong and well and he is at peace.  And death won’t even get to keep his body forever, for the Lord will raise his body from the dead on the last day.  And we who trust Jesus will see him again when we join him in heaven or when Jesus comes again.  Like Peter Marshall used to say to those grieving a believing loved one: “Since he is with Jesus and Jesus is with you, you will never be too very far apart.”
 
And we can say that because the Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead defeated that last enemy death once and for all through His own death and resurrection.  That’s our hope in life, in death, and in grief. 
 
Jesus defeated death.  That’s why Thomas Brooks could preach in a funeral sermon from 1651:
 
Death is another Moses: it delivers believers out of bondage, and from making bricks in Egypt.  It is a day or year of jubilee to a gracious spirit—the year wherein he goes out free from all those cruel taskmasters which it had long groaned under …  Death is a rest from sin, a rest from sorrow, a rest from afflictions and temptations,
 
See that Christ be your Lord and Master … and then your dying-day shall be to you as the day of harvest to the farmer, as the day of deliverance to the prisoner, as the day of coronation to the king.  Your dying-day shall be a day of triumph and exaltation, a day of freedom and consolation, a day of rest and satisfaction!
 
Jesus defeated death.  That’s why John Piper could write: “For believers, death is not the condemning wrath of God toward them, it is the last gasp of a defeated enemy who opens a door to paradise.”
 
I’ll admit that it’s a lot harder to take and appreciate at the funeral of a 42-year-old in the prime of life than someone twice that age.  But this is true for every believer whether he is 12 or 22 or 42 or 62 or 92.  It’s the gospel truth.  And it’s our only hope.
 
Some of us have voiced the kind of hurt that Martha, Mary, and the crowd voiced to Jesus, “Lord if you’d have been here, Phillip would not have died.”
 
Well, Jesus was here and Jesus is here, and Jesus will be with us forever.  So when your grief is hardest may God stir up this hope in the deepest parts of your lives in the name of Him who is our refuge, our strength, our very present help in trouble, and Him who conquered death and walks with us through our grief to a brighter day.  He is Jesus Christ the Lord, the resurrection and the life.  Amen.