The Summer of My Eleventh Year

(This is an experiment to which I’ll be returning from time to time and editing, adding to, trying to turn into something. Readers may ignore it or visit it to see how it has changed. I don’t see it as a journal so much as trying to make sense of the most critical 3 months of my young life.)

I was never very good at introspection, trying to figure out why I said something or did something or how I got to be the person that I am. Most men are said to have the same limitation.

However, looking back over a life that has lasted nearly three-fourths of a century, it’s hard not to notice a few life-intersections that felt minor at the time but turned out to be major game-changers.

The summer of my eleventh year was just such a time.

In mid-1951, my world changed. Our family moved from a West Virginia mining camp into the home of our maternal grandmother on the remote Alabama farm where my mom had been raised. To my mind, we had moved from civilization to Mars.

We went from living in a mountaintop community with swarms of children to a farmhouse 13 miles from town and nearly that far to the nearest friend my age. It felt as if I had been sentenced to solitary confinement.

From a life preoccupied with playing and enjoying myself, I moved to one focused on the life of a working farmhand. Ball games and fun times with buddies were replaced by long afternoons in the field alongside my brothers and sisters.

In leaving West Virginia, I traded an exciting new school with terrific teachers and great classmates for an old, barren, two-room Alabama school 10 miles from the county seat, presided over by a small-time dictator-principal and his wife. Mrs. Johnson taught the first 3 grades; Mr. Johnson had the other three. I wondered if the county school board even knew they were in the system.

For the four years we’d lived in West Virginia, our Alabama cousins seemed to find my Yankee brogue fascinating and on summer visits south, would gather around just to listen. When we moved back to Alabama and it became apparent that I was going to be a classmate at Poplar Springs, my strange speech pattern quickly went from exotic to an embarrassment;

That summer, in the annual revival at New Oak Free Will Baptist Church, the small church where our family had worshiped for generations, Jesus Christ came into my wife and saved me. .

Finally, toward the end of that summer, Mrs. Boshell, our elderly neighbor one mile up the highway, was murdered. Before the sheriff arrived, some of us children stood on her front porch and stared down at her mutilated body.

It was years before I gave thought to the effect such a sequence of major events arriving in wave upon wave could have upon an 11-year-old boy.

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About Your Prayer…I’d Like to Apologize

If you look over the 20 or 25 articles on prayer in this blog, you will see I have sometimes taken people to task for their faulty prayers. I’ve teased them about silly prayers and laughed at their funny mistakes and grown exasperated at what I considered foolish, Pharisaical prayers.

May I apologize?

After all, a prayer is directed to the Father not to the children. None of us has been commissioned to or gifted for the task of correcting the prayers of our sibling

I’m impressed by how little criticism of actual prayers we find in Scripture. In Luke 18:10-14, our Lord did say that the tax-collector went home “justified” (forgiven, made right with God) that day. But He did not say a word about the Pharisee and his prayer. Granted, it was implied that the boasting prayer was rejected, but the Lord sure let that fellow off easily, I’ll say that.

And in James 4:3, we’re told that some prayers are offered from wrong motives, resulting in silence from Heaven.  And Isaiah 59:1-2 says our sins separate us from the Lord and prevent our prayers from getting through. But in neither case did they criticize actual prayers.

I hereby promise to stop criticizing prayers.

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Reforming the Deacons (18): “What Unity Means Within the Deacons”

I’ve seen this happen.

The deacons studied a proposal, discussed it at length, found they were divided, and took a vote, resulting in a split decision. The majority decided to go forward and brought the recommendation to the congregation in the monthly business meeting.

After the chairman of the deacons had his say, another deacon stood to oppose it. This opened the door for a floor fight between the two factions within the deacon body, while the congregation sat and watched in stunned silence.

As the new pastor of that church, I had been caught off guard by this. At the next deacons meeting, I brought up what they had done and tried to analyze it with them. And succeeded in making almost all of them angry at me.

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Your Poor Prayer

….We do not know how to pray as we should…. (Romans 8:26)

I find it liberating to know that the great Apostle Paul was dissatisfied with his prayer life. At least, that’s how I read Romans 8:26. And if he could admit that “we do not know how to pray as we should,” it’s a dead-on cinch that you and I don’t either.

One thing almost everyone in your congregation has in common on a typical Sunday morning is a dissatisfaction with their prayer life. That is not to say that all are doing poorly, only that none of us feels we have got it down right, that we are praying with the effectiveness we’d like.

In this life, we are always going to be doing things partially. “We know in part,” Scripture says. “We prophecy in part” (I Corinthians 13:9,12).

Good music, they say, is music that is written better than it can be played. The Christian life is like that: written better than any of us can hope to attain in this life. The standard of God is still the same: “Be ye perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We will not attain it in this life, but that’s how it’s written.

So with your prayer life. You and I mumble in our prayers, like a child still learning to talk. It frustrates us and disappoints us, but–do not miss this–is oddly pleasing to the Father in Heaven.

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Questions to Ask, Pastor, Before Taking a Public Stand

The pastor stands in the pulpit, clears his throat, and waits for the undivided attention of the congregation. His silence signals the membership that something big is up, that what the preacher is about to say will be long remembered.

He begins, “As most of you know, the local school board has decided that Gideons International will no longer be allowed to distribute New Testaments to the children in this district. This greatly concerns me. I will admit that I am angrier than I have been in a long time.”

Seated in his congregation are three of the six members of the local school board. As the preacher continues, they can feel all eyes turned in their direction. They become fidgety and wish the pastor would “just preach the Bible.”

In another community, the pastor announces his opposition to the United Way budget which devotes a portion of its income to the local Planned Parenthood office. A few miles up the interstate, the pastor is wrestling with whether to speak out on corruption inside the police force.

These are major decisions leaders of the Lord’s churches must make. The stakes are high, the issues are important, and the ramifications may be severe. Going public on controversial matters can make or break a pastor’s ministry in a church.

Here are questions to ask, pastor, before you take a public stand on an issue that is facing your community.

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Enjoy Your Glory and Stay at Home.

“Do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them….” (Jeremiah 45:5).

“Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, with things too profound for me.” (Psalm 131:1).

We’ve been having this little give-and-take on Facebook. As one who enjoys stirring the pot or provoking comment, I often throw out a subject just to watch people spar. But this time I got in a little deeper than I’d planned.

All last week, I worked at the Muskogee Children’s Camp, held at Kiamichi Baptist Assembly in remote Oklahoma. I spoke twice a day and sketched all 500 attendees. It was a full week, and the weather was scorching. With no newspapers, no radio and television, the only news any of us heard came from our cell phones. (What about our laptops? Getting the internet required jumping through too many hoops, so I left mine in the car all week.) The point is: no news at all last week.

That’s why, when I returned to (ahem) civilization and heard about the Chick-Fil-A thing in the news, I was unaware as to what had taken place. Apparently, the head of the company, Dan Cathey, had said something in a news conference that ignited a firestorm of reaction from gay activists, and Christian activists got involved. It will not come as a surprise to anyone on Facebook to learn that a lot of the Lord’s people have strong feelings on such matters.

And that’s when I got in trouble.

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One Thing All Preachers Want

“Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” (I Kings 17:24).

I think it was Freud who said no one has ever answered the question “what does a woman want?”

What does a pastor want? I mean, other than a little appreciation, a day off without the phone ringing, and a staff made up of faithful ministers.

As much as anything ever, your pastor longs–has a deep burning desire–for people to acknowledge that he is a man of God and that when he stands to preach, the message is from God and is truth.

That’s what the widow of Zarephath testified concerning Elijah. Most of us would say, that’s as good as it gets.

This happened during a time of great apostasy in Israel and along with it, a devastating drought. For a time, God had the ravens feed Elijah–the man on the spot, hunted relentlessly by King Ahab–and the brook Cherith to supply him with drink. When the brook dried up, God sent His man to the area of Sidon (present day Lebanon) where a widow would provide for him.

The problem is God had not bothered to tell the widow.

Elijah arrived to discover this poor lady was at her wit’s end. She was outside in the yard gathering sticks for a last fire over which she would bake the last flour in her humble house. The plan, she told the prophet, was to “eat it and die.”

And this was the woman scheduled to provide for Elijah? God does have His unique ways, doesn’t He?

The story, which you may read and enjoy for yourself, is found here in the 17th chapter of I Kings. Elijah asked her to bake him some of the bread first, then provide for herself and her son. She did as he instructed, and thus saw God’s hand at work in providing for her family’s needs throughout the famine.

At a later time–we’re not given a time frame–the woman’s son became seriously ill and seems to have died. Elijah heard about it and came to her house. We’re puzzled by the woman’s attitude (v. 18), but the prophet ignored her complaints and went to work.

Soon, in answer to his prayer, Elijah presented the child back to his mother, alive and well.

That’s when she made that magnificent statement, affirming that Elijah was indeed a man of God and that his word was God’s word and thus was truth.

How can the congregation know this about the pastor?

Here are the principles–the answer–found in the Elijah story.

1) To know you are a man of God, pastor, people need to see your faith.

It was one thing for Elijah to make grand pronouncements about the God-ordained drought  (see James 5:17-18), but when he experienced the hardship along with the rest of the population and did so in obedience to God, he made his point.

2) To know you are a man of God, people need to know your word is true.

“The bowl of flour was not exhausted nor did the jar of oil become empty, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke through Elijah” (I Kings 17:16).

When your word lines up with the word of God, you will win the respect of the godly crowd.

3) To know you are a man of God, people need to see your calm spirit.

When the woman accosted the prophet, demanding answers in a harsh tone, Elijah did not panic. He did not try to calm her or put her in her place or teach her a thing or two about faith. He knew what the woman needed was not arguments but action. She needed to see her child living.

4) To know you are a man of God, people need to know you are a man of prayer.

In the upper room, the prophet laid out the child and lifted up his voice to the Heavens: “O Lord my God, I pray Thee, let this child’s life return to him.” (17:21)

No congregation knows at first glance whether the new minister is solid and godly, but in time, as they behold the strength of his faith, the purity of his word, the sweetness of his spirit, and the force of his prayers, they will know.

A wise minister will not pull rank and insist on being respected because after all, “I am the God-sent shepherd.” He will give the flock time to learn him and know that he is trustworthy.

When they come to this conclusion, the minister has a great foundation from which to do a wonderful work for God.

Such a confidence from the congregation, pastor, is not a gift of their graciousness; it is an admission of the presence and power of God in your life. And it’s a wonderful thing.


We Ought to Be Ashamed

Recently, when my pastor said in a sermon that living for Jesus Christ in this country is easy, someone challenged him.  The critic was adamant in insisting that we have it just as hard here as other believers throughout the world.

We ought to be ashamed if we believe that.

The July 12 issue of the Florida Baptist Witness tells of a missionary to Southeast Asia (country unnamed) who was teaching a number of evangelists from various countries in his part of the world. The missionary said, “They soak(ed) up the lesson on I Peter like it’s news from a long lost friend.”

At one point, the missionary/teacher asked, “How many of you have been persecuted for your faith?” He has taught this lesson before and knew to expect a number of responses.

Not a single hand was raised.

Thinking they might have misunderstood, the missionary said, “How many of you have suffered for preaching the gospel?”

Again, no hands were raised.

This had never happened before. The missionary knew these men and women lived in a SE Asian country where religious groups are required to register and get permission even to read their Bibles and pray. Why was he getting no response?

Finally, the missionary said, “How many of you have been imprisoned for sharing the Gospel?”

Every hand in the room went up.

Then, one by one, they began sharing their stories. It soon became apparent why they had not raised their hands: they did not consider imprisonment persecution.

One evangelist told of a pastor he knows who was tortured by authorities for preaching the Gospel. After being left outside overnight with no clothes on, still that brother was eager to return to share the gospel with his people. They were hungry to hear about Jesus, he said.

At one point, 14 of these evangelists had been arrested and thrown into prison. But this did not stop them. They continued talking about Jesus. One evangelist led many prisoners to Christ. He even conducted worship services in the prison yard. When the authorities discovered what was happening, they chained him in solitary confinement.

Another of the evangelists returned home to see his newborn son for the first time, but plans to continue his ministry in the area where he was arrested and imprisoned for a full year for preaching Christ.

The missionary said, “Now I (understood) why no one raised their hands the first two times I asked the question. The evangelists simply do not equate imprisonment with persecution or suffering. Sure, some were stoned, imprisoned, beaten, or evicted from their villages, but to them it’s the expected response for sharing the gospel.”

Toward the end of his session with the evangelists, the missionary heard their reports and added up more than 900 baptisms.

The Apostle Paul had a word for people who live such sold-out lives for Christ. “For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed. For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day.” (II Timothy 1:12)

Sometimes when I hear someone tell of their battles with cancer–of the endless chemo treatments,  stem-cell implants, and bone marrow transplants, all the unbearable suffering that seems to know no end–I think back to my small bout with cancer in 2004-05, and keep my mouth shut. Mine was nothing compared to what they are enduring.

Throughout the world, our brothers and sisters are doing so much for Christ with so little. You and I have so much yet do so little.


You Know You’re Called to This Work When….

My pastor friend was about to conduct the most difficult funeral of his nearly-20 year ministry. He and I had discussed it and I had prayed for him. His heart was breaking for the young family that was laying to rest two close loved ones.

In a private moment, I said to him, “Pastor to pastor, I want to ask you something. Even though this is tearing your heart out, do you find yourself thinking, ‘I’d rather be here doing this than anywhere else in the world’?”

He said, “I do! I really do.”

I said, “That’s how you know you are really called to this work.”

He was quiet a moment, then added, “I tell my wife–pastors’ wives understand these things–that my favorite part of pastoring, what I do best, is the funeral of a Christian. It’s hard, it can be gut-wrenching, but this is our moment to shine, the event which brings together all the great stuff we believe so strongly.”

God-called pastors understand.

I have stood at the graveside of a two-year-old who had fought a valiant fight against leukemia, my heart almost as torn as the parents’, and thought, “Thank you, dear Lord, for calling me into this work. I’d rather be here than anyplace else on earth.”

Only the called will understand.

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