Old Books and New Insights

I confess. I am a bookaholic, a bibliophile. New books, old books, it doesn’t matter. Turn me loose in a convention hall where the public library is selling off their excess and I’m in heaven for two hours.

In Cincinnati, I discovered a used bookstore that filled several floors of an ancient downtown building. I could have moved in.

I know where the best used bookstore is in Jackson, Mississippi, and in Birmingham, Alabama, and never pass either city without a brief stop-in.

But there is reason to this madness. And it’s far more than a nostalgia kick. (There is that too, but it’s not the major thing.)

Take the 1943 book I finished today. Purchased for 5 bucks somewhere–I forget where–“They Call It Pacific” is an eyewitness account of the opening days and months of the Second World War by Associated Press reporter Clark Lee.

Reading the book was a delight simply because it was not history. Lee was there, he saw it, he told of the conversations, described the people, and let us feel what he felt.

And like a preacher ought, I received several good sermon illustrations from the book. But more than that, these are “life” illustrations, not just grist for the sermon-making mill.

But first, a little background….

In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s Lee worked out of Japan. He saw the build-up to war first-hand and was friends with a number of government officials and military officers who later became our hated enemies. He escaped the country in November, 1941, just ahead of Pearl Harbor and full-scale war.

Clark Lee was in the Phillipines when MacArthur was forced to flee and the Japanese captured the country. Along with other leaders, he relocated to the island of Corregidor and went back and forth to Bataan to interview American soldiers who were fighting alongwith the Filipinos. Then, as those last bastions fell, he hopped a boat to Australia. He arrived back in Hawaii six months after Pearl Harbor and described the recovery going on. Then, he was assigned to an aircraft carrier that took part in the fight for Guadalcanal.

The book ends after the first full year of American involvement in WW II. I found it fascinating on several levels, some of them because of illustrations the book provides.

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The Pastor’s in Trouble–So He Prays

Nothing jerks our prayers out of their “blessed generality” stage like a crisis. The best kind of crisis for that is for a close loved one to get in serious trouble–car wreck, cancer, emergency surgery, that sort of thing.

But a close second is a personal crisis, the kind where someone is making life miserable for you and it’s taking all the reserves you can muster to get out of bed in the morning and walk into one more day. You either quit praying altogether, the worst possible choice, or your prayers lose their vain repetitions and meaningless phrases and get down to business.

Yesterday, going through a stack of notes from the 1990s, I found such a prayer of mine, written in the thick of church conflict. It’s undated, so there’s no way of determining what particular struggle was going on then. We went through so many, the first six or seven years of my 14-year pastorate at the last church we served.

The prayer was written in longhand and filled two pages. It’s about as specific as one would want a prayer to be. No more “bless him” and “help her.” But on the other hand, it does not call names and I’m glad to report, it’s not as harsh as some of the Psalms where David or whoever is praying for the children of his enemies to not live to see that day’s sunset.

Here is the prayer, along with a few comments. I send it forth in the hope that some servant of the Lord in the fight of his life may find encouragement to hang tough and be faithful.

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How to Spot a Fake

In the latter months of World War II, as the Allies were closing in on Germany, the Nazis developed a ruse that worked well for a while.

They would find German soldiers who spoke English well and dress them as Americans. They would arrange for them to be “lost” and to rejoin the Alllied forces as they moved forward. Their task: to infiltrate the American troops and assassinate Generals Eisenhower and Patton.

In time, the good guys developed some tests for exposing the fakes. One German was cut down by the Americans when they saw how he was walking. He was ramrod straight whereas all our troops slouched when they walked.

Another group learned to address the soldier using “pig Latin.” If he was stymied by that, he was exposed.

And they developed questions. Two, I recall, were: Who is Betty Grable? and What position did Lou Gehrig play?

The answers were: movie star/pinup girl and first base for the Yankees. It was understood that every GI in the world would know this.

If you have been in the warfare against the forces of righteousness and the enemies of all that is good and holy for any period of time, you have come up against counterfeits and pretenders, fakes and shams.

The question is, how do you tell? And what should we do about them?

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Why I Am A Southern Baptist

When I turned on the computer this morning, there was the question. A friend-at-a-distance from many years back with whom I have reconnected on Facebook–FB is great for that very reason–laid the matter before me:

“Why are you Southern Baptist?”

It did not appear that she has an agenda and she didn’t sound angry. She sounded like she wanted my take on this matter.

What I said to her in the brief space which Facebook allows was something like: “I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. The Lord captured me there as a sophomore in college and did such wonderful things in my life in this family of churches, I’ve never looked back. Its emphasis on fellowship, the Word, and bringing people to Jesus does it for me.”

That’s pretty much what I said, but what I thought was, “It would take an hour to answer that adequately.”

Let’s see if I can do it in less than that.

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Preparing for Your Moment

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have.” (I Peter 3:15)

Sometimes you know when your moment is coming but most times you don’t.

Later this morning–what started me thinking about all this–I’m to be interviewed for a national Christian radio hookup. Readers of this blog will recall the “Christian Bucket List” from late April and early May. (The list of 50 required five articles over a two week period.) Someone at Moody Radio saw them and asked if they can interview me concerning them.

Far from “condoning” or “enduring” such interviews, I love them. No one who goes into the Lord’s work does so hoping to keep their ministry a secret. So, let’s do it.

I have no idea what they will ask. But, in preparation, I went back last night and looked over the five articles. And made a little discovery. One item of the fifty is mentioned twice. But this can be edited and corrected, thankfully. One of the blessings of blogging.

For the last week, I’ve had a post-it note beside my computer: “Monday. Interview. Moody Radio. 10 am. Deb.” A reminder to pray for the Father’s presence in this and a prompting to be near the home phone at that time.

It’s not like this is the first time I’ve been interviewed, so it’s not about my having the jitters. (At this point, anyone else would pause to list some of the radio and TV stations/networks I’ve done interviews with. But let’s pass on that. Suffice it to say there have been several. This is not about me.)

What this is about is the need for a minister or any follower of the Lord Jesus to be prepared for that moment when the microphone is poked in his face and he is asked to account for something important.

I recall an article from a newsmagazine in which a consultant was prepping politicians and Fortune 500 big-shots for their moment in the spotlight, for good or ill. Some of his points have lingered with me to this day.

Then yesterday, seeing the CEO of Massey Energy appearing before a Senate committee on C-Span to explain the deaths of the coal miners a few months back in his West Virginia mine brought it all home.

I expect the CEO of British Petroleum has conferred with consultants on how to come across to the public as believable, confident, and yet contrite at the same time. Admit what you can, explain all you must, but do or say nothing to play into the hands of the lawyers who are lining up to clean out your bank accounts.

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When the Cheering Stops

Some years back Gene Smith wrote a book about the final years of Woodrow Wilson with the intriguing title, “When the Cheering Stopped.”

Smith told how at the end of the First World War, Wilson was the most popular man on the planet. When he and his presidential entourage traveled to Europe for the Versailles Conference, crowds acclaimed him everywhere. He was hotter than the Beatles or Elvis ever were. That enthusiasm lasted about a year.

Woodrow Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke on October 3, 1919, and was incapacitated for the remaining five years of his life. His party lost in the 1920 elections. And Congress refused to ratify membership in the League of Nations, a cause dear to Wilson’s heart.

His star had ascended and flared brightly, then had burned out and fallen to the earth. One wonders what he thought about during all those months in which his mind was working but little else. He had much to regret and surely must have suffered great remorse.

The Second World War, it has often been noted, resulted from the botched up job the Allies did at Versailles and over the next few years. (I’m halfway thinking of inserting an apology here for the extended historical allusion. But hey, this was my major and some of my best college papers dealt with this period in American life! But, back to the subject….)

The question before us is “What does a leader do when he comes to the end, hands the reins to his successor, and goes home? When he/she looks back and thinks of the mistakes made, the people hurt, the jobs left undone, how does one handle this?”

Sean Payton, the Super-Bowl-winning coach of the New Orleans Saints football team, has a book coming out at the end of June. “Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life” will give Payton’s take on coming to our city and, particularly following Katrina, rebuilding his team and recapturing the hearts of the WhoDat Nation.

In Friday’s Times-Picayune, reporter Mike Triplett provides an advance peek at the book with something Payton did to fire up the team during the week prior to the February 7 championship game in Miami.

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What ‘Conservative’ Means (I Peter 3:8-17)

I know church members who would rather be called ‘conservative’ than Christian.

For some, their conservative stance in politics and religion is the very essence of who they are. Even to imply that they might be a liberal is to provoke their wrath and invite their hostility.

This is for those of us who count ourselves the conservatives in American life. Specifically, religious (Christian) conservatives.

Many of us have lost our way. We do not hold to Jesus-Christ principles so much as “someone-else-principles.” By “someone else,” I refer to the spokesmen for whatever brand of conservatism many among us are following with our hearts and souls. In politics, a few years back, it was Newt Gringrich and Rush Limbaugh. These days it’s Tea Party stuff. It’s Glenn Beck. It’s anti-Obama. Let him brush his teeth and some conservative pops up to harangue him about it. The disastrous oil flow in the Gulf is his fault. Whatever did we do for a whipping boy before he came along!

It’s an attitude. And it’s mainly ‘anti.’ It feeds off negativism and has a hard time when its own people are in the White House (or in the seats of power within the denomination). The fact is it’s much easier to criticize and harass and march in the streets than to govern. When you are protesting, the issues are clear and you have one task: oppose. But the one governing has to balance all his constituencies, listen to all sides, and seek a consensus.

Well, this is not about politics. It’s about bringing our conservatism into the church. And it’s about reminding ourselves what it means to be a Jesus-follwer.

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Boring Sermons: An Oxymoron? Or to be Expected?

“My chief objection (to the Christian faith and the church today) is that ninety-nine percent of sermons and Sunday School teachings are so agonizingly dull!”

The critic, Frank Shallard, was a preacher himself, so he knew whereof he spoke.

Except he wasn’t speaking for himself. Shallard is a fictional character in the 1927 novel “Elmer Gantry” and, I’m confident, was voicing the views of author Sinclair Lewis himself.

That line, the final sentence in chapter 28, must have elicited a million cheers and “amens” from across the landscape as readers “heard” the renegade preacher voicing their own gripe about the church.

Boring preaching and dull Bible lessons are no recent phenomenon.

However, knowing that tiresome, uninspiring preaching has always been around does not make it any easier to take or to deal with.

You know what the problem is in addressing boring sermons, don’t you? That one will be boring in doing it. I’ve already started, deleted, and restarted this piece for that very reason.

Google “boring sermons” and pull up a chair. The internet has plenty on the subject.

Here is my little contribution to the discussion. I’ll try not to bore.

Boredom in anything–whether preaching the revolutionary gospel of Jesus Christ, playing third base for the Yankees or Red Sox, or being married to the most beautiful woman in the world–is part of the human condition.

The human being is constitutionally unable to stay excited all the time. The adrenalin would burn up our nervous system and we would be dead in six months from sheer exhaustion and sleeplessness.

God has created us so that the human brain adapts to every situation. The preacher of the world-shaking gospel settles down into a routine he can live with, the third-baseman grows accustomed to the adulation of the crowds and the television lights and the overflowing bank account, and the fellow married to (insert name of your favorite starlet here) finds that one day is pretty much like the next.

That’s why preachers grow lazy, third-basemen drop the ball, and husbands of starlets stray.

But we’re talking about the preachers here.

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How the Lord Did a Number On Me

Next Sunday I’m teaching my son’s Sunday School class at our church. A couple of days ago, he sent me the teacher’s lesson book for these young couples. The subject is “living by a higher standard than the unbelieving world” and the text is Leviticus chapters 17-22.

Yesterday I started reading those chapters and began smiling. Oh, these chapters and I are old friends. Good friends even.

There is a story here, one I gladly tell.

It’s a story of persistent, nagging doubt and how God is able to use that doubt to do something extraordinary in the life of the believer who will stay in class.

So, yesterday, after reading the passage from Leviticus, I decided to do something I’ve not done in 45 years. I went back and re-read the 1927 Sinclair Lewis novel “Elmer Gantry.” I found it online by typing in “text of Elmer Gantry.” In this world of technological wonders, as a child of 1940, I am constantly being amazed at what’s available through the computer. But there it was, the entire book.

I was looking for one specific quote, something Sinclair Lewis has a renegade preacher tell another but which, I wager, was Lewis voicing his own doubts about the Christian faith. Preachers and veteran teachers know what this means when I say that I have quoted this from “Elmer Gantry” all through the years but in time I was quoting my quoting. Eventually one forgets the original text and cites what he remembers he said the last time.

I decided it was about time to go back and see if I’d gotten it right, see what the preacher had actually said. I’m no longer the 25-year-old I was when I first came up against that book and the movie it spawned. It could be I’ll see those words differently from the way they hit me as a seminary student.

First, a side note about the movie. Far more of this generation have seen the Burt Lancaster movie “Elmer Gantry,” made in 1960, than have read the book. The problem is, the book is like a 6 hour movie, whereas the movie was necessarily much briefer. The movie covers only about 100 pages of the book.

I recommend the book to every preacher I know. It’s painful reading, I grant you. However, in many ways, Sinclair Lewis knew what he was talking about. The charlatan who was Elmer Gantry–the one in the novel is far worse than the on-screen version played by Burt Lancaster–exposes the charlatanishness in each of us who would deign to speak for God and lead His flock.

In order to convey the full impact of the renegade preacher’s words, I’ll need to quote a long passage from the book.

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Expressions I Hope I Never Hear Again

You are about to encounter some of this pastor’s and I suspect every pastor’s pet peeves. These are comments from church members that irk us, get our goat, try the limits of our patience, drive us up the wall–and a whole bunch of other metaphors for provoking us.

Ready? We’ll get right to it….

1) “I’m not being spiritually fed.”

2) “I have a right” or “I deserve….”

3) “Lord knows I’m not one to gossip but….”

4) “I’ve been paying my tithes for years and I think I’m entitled….”

5) “Sorry. I just don’t have a gift for that.”

6) “Why don’t they do something about that?”

7) “The pastor is a dictator.”

8) “Before we do that, let’s have a word of prayer.”

9) “There’s no use trying to talk to the preacher. He won’t listen to you.”

Some years back, Pastor (also Evangelist, Author, and a lot of other things) Jack Taylor wrote a book he titled “Which Being Interpreted Means.” His thinking was that, just as Scripture sometimes will give a Hebrew or Aramaic word and then tell the reader what it means, we should do that with a lot of expressions we use around the church. It was all tongue-in-cheek and a lot of fun.

Since Brother Jack had me illustrate this creative little book, I spent a lot of time with each point, so I remember a number of them.

A friend greets you with, “Hey, I’ve been praying for you.” That, being interpreted, usually means, “I haven’t prayed for you at all, but on seeing you just now I sent up a quick ‘Lord, bless this brother/sister!'”

Someone at church says, “The Lord just isn’t leading me to do that.” Which being interpreted means, “There is no way under God’s heaven I was planning to do that and nothing you say will ever change my mind!”

(I still see Jack’s book available from online book sources in case you’re interested in getting a copy.)

So, let’s apply the little “Which being interpreted means” rule to the above expressions which I hope to never hear in church again.

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