The Pack Rat Downsizes

How does a pack rat begin the uncluttering process? You accumulate books and magazines and articles, mementos and keepsakes, plaques and awards and framed things from a forty or fifty year ministry, and then one day, you begin to get rid of it all, piece by piece.

Fortunately, every time we move (change churches or offices or homes), we have to go through and throw out. So, it’s not like I’m starting from scratch. But still, you’d be surprised (depressed?) by the files and books and stuff I still cart around from one place to the next.

Even when you’re not trying, things just accumulate. For example, at this moment, atop the bookcase in this office are the following items, going left to right: a pewter bud vase (that’s empty); a ceramic angel a friend gave me a couple of Christmases ago; a “New Yorker” magazine coffee mug; a replica of a Toucan bird someone brought back from an overseas mission trip; a gavel received from when I was president of something or other; a small casket (?) with “McK” etched into it which plays “How Great Thou Art” (the signature on the bottom reads “Wilber”); a red clear whiskey bottle (empty!) with Harry Truman’s image in relief; a teak (i.e., wooden) beaver from a preaching trip to Canada a generation ago; a life-sized hand made of wood inside of which is the smaller image of a child from someone’s mission trip somewhere; several interesting rocks; a Louisiana Baptist Convention mug; a ceramic image of Jesus the Shepherd given to me forty years ago by a friend; a child behind a pulpit with a tiny dog standing nearby given by longtime friend Joyce Ponder; a bottle of brown water from Greenville, Mississippi, complete with a bug inside; another small angel; and finally, two metal (heavy!) University of Alabama bookends.

Still with me?

Now, lining the top of the office wall above that same bookcase are six framed items: a photo of Dr. Thomas Cox Teasdale’s tombstone in Friendship Cemetery in Columbus, MS, with photographer Sharon Sams Adams’ little son Boardman reaching up to the weeping angel; the original artwork from a Sunday “Gasoline Alley” comic strip given by artist Jim Scancarelli; the signatures of Billy and Ruth Graham above which each wrote their favorite scriptures; and three original daily comic strips, given by the artists: “Snuffy Smith,” given by Fred Lasswell; “Tiger,” given by Bud Blake; and “Frank and Ernest,” given by Bob Thaves.

And that’s just one wall!

Fortunately, we have regular meetings of our pastors around here, so little by little, I’ll lay out giveaways on tables and move the clutter from my office to theirs!

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Self-Talk: Prescription for the Tired and the Tiresome

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.” (Psalm 103:1)

“Hey you! You — self! — yeah, I’m talking to you. How about blessing God! Everything down inside me, let’s do it!”

British pastor and heart surgeon Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Most unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself rather than talking to yourself.”

In recent years, motivational people in this country seem to have discovered the power of giving oneself a good talking-to. Denis Waitley has said, “Relentless, repetitive self-talk is what changes our self-image.”

Self talk is the internal dialogue we use to view the world, explain situations, and communicate to ourselves.

The discovery may be recent but the concept is as old as humanity. In fact, we find it all through Scripture. My favorite is this one….

“Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope thou in the Lord!” (Ps. 42:5,11, and Ps. 43:5) David evidently thought so much of the power of self-talk, he makes that statement, then repeats it twice.

Imagine someone chiding himself for being depressed. “Hey, you! What’s going on here? You of all people are sad? And for no reason at all! Come on — put your mind on the Lord! He is your Source.”

That’s the point. And that’s how it’s done.

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The Most Striking Thing About Leaders

“The most striking thing about highly effective leaders is how little they have in common. What one swears by, another warns against. But one trait stands out: the willingness to risk.” (Larry Osborne, quoted by John Maxwell in “The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader,” p. 40.

Well, we all knew leaders are all different, but it’s good someone finally said it.

I’m so tired of this one-size-fits-all standardized formula for making effective leaders.

The most hopeful thing I’ve read about leadership in 2009 is this:

“If you look at the lives of effective leaders, you will find that they often don’t fit into a stereotypical mold. For example, more than 50 percent of all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies had C or C- averages in college. Nearly 75 percent of all U.S. presidents were in the bottom half of their school classes. And more than 50 percent of all millionaire entrepreneurs never finished college.” (Maxwell, “21 Indispensable Qualities,” p. 83)

Now, when John Maxwell cited those statistics (he didn’t give his source), he came to a different conclusion than the one that occurs to me. He said, “What makes it possible for people who might seem ordinary to achieve great things? The answer is passion. Nothing can take the place of passion in a leader’s life.”

Far be it from me to argue with John Maxwell, the guru of leadership on the American scene today. And I certainly do not dispute the importance of passion and focus.

For instance….

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Notes and Quotes and My Schedule

“Thus the debates were scheduled. The verbal flint was at the ready. Lincoln and Douglas were about to set words on fire.” (from “A Companion to the Lincoln-Douglas Debates” by John Splaine and quoted in Brian Lamb’s “Lincoln.” Page 47.)

Words on fire. Sounds like Jeremiah 20:9, doesn’t it. And Luke 24:32. And you, pastor, when you stand in the pulpit with Heaven’s message for God’s children.

“Do you read yourself to sleep?” they asked President Harry Truman. “No,” he said. “I read myself awake.”

Novelist Rex Stout’s mother did not want her reading interrupted. She kept a bowl of cold water and a washcloth beside her chair. Any child who interrupted her reading got his face washed.

Ben Franklin said the person most to be pitied is the lonesome man on a rainy day who does not know how to read.

Writer Elmore Leonard was asked how he managed to keep the action moving in his stories so well. He said, “I leave out the parts people skip.”

It’s always fascinating to watch people struggle to find the balance between liberty and responsibility….

During the Summer Olympics, we heard repeatedly that because of his lifelong focus on swimming, Michael Phelps had missed many of the experiences and teaching moments of other young people his age. Well, he’s just gotten one. Being photographed smoking pot last week has cost him one of his sponsorships, perhaps worth millions. Did he have the freedom to smoke pot? Yep, so long as he was willing to pay the price.

I’m betting he never thought that puff or two came with such a heavy price tag.

A news report the other day told of a fellow at a Valparaiso, Indiana, basketball game who came out of the stands and attacked a referee whose calls he took issue with. He grabbed hold of the whistle chain around the ref’s neck and began choking. What he did not know was that the referee was a highway patrolman who called high school basketball games in his spare time. As they led the guy away in handcuffs, he could be heard to yell, “Hey, no fair! No fair!”

Can you say, “Idiot”?

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports today, Friday, February 6, 2009, that a semi-famous comedian (whom I’ve never heard of) has just been disinvited to be a celebrity on a float in an upcoming Mardi Gras parade. Krewe members learned in the last 24 hours that after Hurricane Katrina, that comedian said a lot of unflattering things about New Orleans and its citizens. In announcing the decision, the krewe chief said, “We’re cancelling him for his own protection.” Funny way of putting it.

To my knowledge there is no money involved in a celebrity riding a float, just the honor associated with it. But people seem to want to do it. Go figure.

Speaking of “real” celebrities, the kind making a difference….

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What to Hold On To, What to Let Go

(I wrote what follows five years ago and laid it aside until my Dad was in Heaven. Dad read everything I wrote and I did not want to cause him any grief, even if inadvertently. The children are now 12 and almost 15, but nothing else has changed.)

This week we made some memories for our grandchildren. Our son Neil’s three children — Grant, nearly 10, and twins Abby and Erin, 7 — live one mile from us, and consequently we see them several times a week. During the Easter break, my wife Margaret and I decided to treat them to a train ride to Birmingham, then rent a car and drive 60 miles north and visit my parents for a day. The rail trip took 7 hours, a long time for children of this age who needed to be reminded not to ask again “how much longer.” We took along books to read, games to play, a picnic lunch, and snacks, and managed to get through the ride just fine. The girls got a lot of lap time with Grandma and Grandpa and everyone napped for an hour or so.

At my parents’ home, the kids became better acquainted with cousins and aunts, they explored the deep woods and meadows, discovered baby puppies with their eyes still shut, plus kittens, wild turkeys, a possum, and the obligatory farm dogs. They’re still talking about it.

Building memories for a child is a grand enterprise. Somewhere I read of a father who had to back out of his family’s ski vacation into the Rockies due to the unexpected demands of his job. Reluctantly, they started on the long drive without him. When his work wrapped up earlier than expected, he made plans to join them. Since he knew where each day’s drive was taking them and where they were spending each night, he flew to the city ahead and hired a taxi to drive him miles out the interstate and leave him. An hour or two later, as the family whizzed by in the loaded-down van, they spotted a familiar figure with his thumb in the air. “Was that Dad?” “That couldn’t be Dad!” “It was! It was Dad!” “Turn around.”

Later, when a friend asked him why he went to such trouble to surprise his family, the man answered, “Just think — for the rest of their lives, my kids will be talking about their crazy, wonderful dad!”

Unfortunately, not all family memories are so idyllic. Some families go through such pain that the memories are better off forgotten. Choosing what to retain and what to release can be an art. But it is always a choice.

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Making the Child

As I write, yesterday was the first day for high school seniors to sign with colleges around the country to play football next year. The morning Times-Picayune is jam-packed with stories of “blue-chip prospects” in the state and elsewhere who have committed themselves to attend college and play ball at LSU, Tulane, and other schools in the state. According to the rating services that study these things, LSU and Alabama have recruited the best talent in the nation.

Every athletic team of any size and prominence in this country — professional or amateur — has its scouts, people who are paid workers or volunteers who keep up with the teams at lower levels in order to recommend talented individuals for the teams or schools they work for.

If you want to send a thrill through a high school senior just before a big game, tell him, “A scout from such-and-such university is in the stadium tonight.” To give the same thrill to the college senior, say, “A scout from such-and-such pro team is in the stands.”

They’re being looked at, their talent and abilities assessed. Life may be about to change for them.

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Your Heart’s Desire

As a young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, whose 200th birthday we celebrate next week, longed to make a mark in this world, to do something significant enough to cause his name to be remembered.

In “President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman,” William Lee Miller writes that in 1841, during a time of depression, Lincoln told a friend “that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived — and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day & generation and so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for.”

Interesting ambition.

Miller goes on to comment, “…twenty years later, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation….’He reminded (the friend) of the conversation — and said with earnest emphasis — I believe that in this measure (meaning his proclamation) my fondest hopes will be realized.'” (p. 39)

If Lincoln’s life-goal was indeed to be remembered, then he would have been gratified, overwhelmed, and even staggered to learn he is the most-honored of all our chief executives, and the most written-about American ever.

“May He grant you your heart’s desire”(Psalm 20:4).

I’ve been memorizing that wonderful 20th Psalm, a keeper in every way. This morning on the drive to the office, as I was reciting the first four verses — that’s as far as I’ve gotten — that prayer-wish stopped me in my tracks. What exactly is “my heart’s desire?” If it’s the Lord’s will to grant it, and if that’s something I ought to be desiring and even expecting, then identifying it would seem to be a reasonable thing to do.

I’ve mentioned here the answer Pastor Frank Pollard gave when a seminary student asked how he wanted to be remembered: “I don’t want to be remembered; I’m only the messenger.”

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The Principles of David Crosby

Anyone who knows me at all is aware of my admiration for David Crosby, the 13-year pastor of the First Baptist Church of New Orleans. He has the sharpest mind and tenderest heart of anyone I know. Sometimes when we leave a meeting where he has been the featured speaker, I find myself thinking, “Wish I’d said that.”

David reminds me of what a critic once said of Dr. George W. Truett, the greatly-admired pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church throughout the first half of the 20th century. The man just couldn’t figure out why everyone admired Dr. Truett so highly and finally went to hear him preach. As he came out of the church, a friend asked, “Well, what did you think?” The critic said, “He didn’t say a thing I couldn’t have said — if I’d thought of it.”

That’s how I feel about Dr. Crosby. (My problem is, I never think of it!)

David is an excellent writer and his op-ed columns frequently appear in the Times-Picayune. Recently, he put those writing skills to good use in producing a book on the basics of the Christian faith called “First Principles.” It’s published by Pelican Printing here in New Orleans, and I recommend it highly.

First, let me emphasize this is not a book of clever stories and recycled sermons. This is just what the title implies, a book which deals with basic biblical doctrines of the Christian faith. Each chapter title begins with “I believe.” The first five chapters are “I believe that God created,” “I believe that Jesus saves,” “I believe the Holy Spirit sanctifies,” “I believe in the church,” and “I believe in prayer.”

Here are samples of his writing and the insights awaiting the reader….

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In God’s Symphony, No Solo Acts

Simon Cowell stares at the “American Idol” contestant, disgusted at what he has just heard. “You were awful,” he says. “The worst thing we have heard all day.”

We almost pity the poor celebrity-wannabe for her humiliation. However, to our amazement, even as the tears flow and her voice breaks, she pokes out her bottom lip and with fire in her eyes, says, “You’re wrong. I have a great voice and someday you will eat those words. I’m going to be a star.”

We members of the vast television-viewing public sit at home enthralled by such self-deception. “How could she think such a thing,” we wonder. Doesn’t she know how terrible she is? Hasn’t anyone ever told her the truth?

I know what her problem is, because I’ve been there.

On our Alabama farm, during the summers of my 15th, 16th, and 17th years, I spent six days a week in the fields plowing. As a rule, I was a half-mile from any other living soul, and at times, when I plowed the bottomlands we called Bunkum, a full mile away. With no one in earshot, I felt free to sing, and brother did I ever. I opened up and belted out a country tune, a hymn, or the latest gospel quartet number at the top of my lungs. When I wasn’t singing, I was whistling. All day, every day.

All alone.

Then one day when I was in college, roommate Joel Davis and I had a temporary boarder named Kenneth Hogue. Now, Kenneth had a tape recorder, one of those old reel-to-reel things (the only kind in existence in 1960). And that’s how, one afternoon while no one else was in the apartment, I plugged it up and turned it on and recorded myself singing. And had the surprise of my life.

Through all those years of singing in the fields, I had been hearing the full musical instrumentation behind me. In my mind, the piano was playing and the quartet was singing, with my voice blending in.

But the tape recorder would have none of that. There was my voice, standing all alone out in the field, stark naked, exposed for all the world to see and hear.

It was one of those moments you never forget.

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