If a fellow doesn’t know the difference between a symbol and the reality it represents, he could find himself in a lot of trouble.
He might, for example, consume a photograph of a steak and expect to work a full shift on its nourishment.
He could pay fifty thousand dollars for the emblem of a Mercedes and still have no way to get to work the next morning.
He could pay a lot of money to a degree mill and announce to the world that he has advanced degrees and still be functionally illiterate.
He could spend all his money on an expensive wedding ring, forcing him to take extra work to pay it off, and end up neglecting his wife and losing his marriage.
She might go to heroic lengths to improve the appearance of her face and body, but without the slightest thought to the content of her character or the quality of her life.
A school could pour all its money into its sports teams and abandon the purpose for which it exists in the first place.
A church could spend a small fortune on its appearance and public image under the mistaken impression that what the community thinks of them has much to do with anything.
A community could let the homeless fill their parks and the poor rot in their projects while pouring needed millions into new stadiums to keep team owners from relocating to cities even more foolish than they.
Preachers could rally their members to boycot businesses where the employees wish customers “Happy holidays,” instead of the more spiritually correct, “Merry Christmas.”
Our church has done it three times now.
The first time, about five years ago, a representative of Franklin Graham’s Boone, North Carolina ministry called, looking for a church in metro New Orleans to host a family from Bosnia coming to a local hospital to have the baby operated on. He said, “I’ve called all over and, frankly, I’ve been surprised that no one is interested. They all say they’ll have to get back with me and no one has.” I said, “Stop calling. You’ve called the right church.”
It took a dozen or more families for us to host the mother, her baby, and the woman interpreter for a solid 6 weeks or more. In addition to providing two bedrooms in a home, there were meals to prepare, and daily transportation to and from the hospital, some dozen miles away. Church members gave money, some drove their car, and many brought meals. Two families opened their homes, a month in one and several weeks in the other. The baby had his heart surgery and they all went back home, carrying happy memories of American hospitality and Christian love.
A few mornings ago, I was about to check out of a motel in Alexandria and drive across town for an early breakfast meeting. Carrying my bag to the car in the parking lot, I was struck by one of the most glorious sunrises I’ve seen in years. Against a backdrop of indigo, the purples streaked across the morning sky, leaving bumps of orange and peach in their wake.
I turned around and went inside the lobby and called out to a dozen sleepy guests hovering over morning coffee with faces buried in the USA Todays, “Hey, everyone–come outside and see the most wonderful sunrise!” To their credit, most did. Two minutes later, it was forever gone.
I think it was Tony Campolo who says he tried for a long time to get his teenage daughter to get up and come out and watch the sunrise with him. She said, “Dad, if God had intended us to watch the sunrise, he’d have scheduled it at a decent hour.”
I still recall those foggy days of my early attempts at preaching. A new college graduate, I was working for two years in a cast iron pipe plant just outside Birmingham while trying to pastor tiny Unity Baptist Church up the highway at Kimberly before heading to seminary in New Orleans. Although a Baptist, I had attended college at a Methodist school, had majored in history and political science, and about the only thing I knew about the Bible were the smidgens of sermon-and-Sunday-School-lesson leftovers from growing up in church. On my lunch hour, I would open the Scriptures and read. Mainly, I was looking for a sermon for the following Sunday, and mostly, I found the Bible to be an intriguing mystery. Intriguing, because I was drawn to its wisdom and stories, and mysterious because I never could seem to crack its code. Since I did not have a clue as to what I was doing, my sermon-chasing consisted of searching for key verses or fascinating stories to jump off the page and grab my attention. My reading was more scanning than studying. Pity those thirty people who sat in my congregation on Sunday. I’m forever grateful to them for letting me learn on them.
Pastor and seminary educator Gordon MacDonald relates an incident from 1966, early in his ministry at a time when our nation was polarized over racial issues. Gordon had become friends with the pastor of the only African-American church in that southern Illinois community, so when trouble broke out between white and black young people, the two ministers decided to get together and talk.
At Gordon’s invitation, the other pastor brought several carloads of young men and women into the MacDonald home for a lengthy discussion. Then, they invited other community leaders to join the dialogue. As a result, the community came together.
“I assumed all my church members would be thrilled,” said Gordon.
One week later, at a meeting of church leaders, a deacon stood to announce his displeasure with Pastor Gordon over this incident. The pastor had betrayed his ministry by engaging in “social gospel” activities, he claimed. The pastor had no business interfering in the African-American community. Unless he renounced what he had done and wrote a letter of apology to the newspaper and promised never to do such again, the deacon would resign from the board and leave the church.
MacDonald says, “It was a tense moment.” When the man sat down, silence filled the room. Everyone waited to see what would happen next.