What the Roman world was like when the Gospel came

Robert Harris is the best historical novelist on the scene today. He puts you in the time period.  You come away knowing those people.  Everything he writes is so readable.

Conspirata is a sequel to Harris’ novel Imperium, which chronicles the rise of Cicero in ancient Rome.  He sticks to the facts and to the actual speeches of Cicero as much as possible, which is what make this so valuable.  You feel you know these people afterwards.

Conspirata  tells of Cicero’s consulship in which he ruled over the Roman Empire for a brief period, his work as a senator, and his brilliance as a lawyer and orator.  It’s impossible to recommend this novel too highly; I loved it.

I was struck by the conditions in Rome at the time the story begins, which is 63 B.C. This was the most civilized and progressive society known to western man at the time.  We still speak of “the glory that was Rome.”  It was glorious, but only to a point and dependent on the strata of society you occupied.  Not everyone had it good.

Into this world, Jesus Christ was born. Into this culture the gospel came.  To these people, God sent a Savior.

Here is an excerpt. As you read it, ask yourself, “Man, did these people ever need a Savior?”

Such was the state of the city on the eve of Cicero’s consulship–a vortex of hunger, rumor, and anxiety, of crippled veterans and bankrupt farmers begging at every corner; of roistering bands of drunken young men terrorizing shopkeepers; of women from good families openly prostituting themselves outside the taverns; of sudden conflagrations, violent tempests….and scavenging dogs; of fanatics, soothsayers, beggars, fights. (p. 7)

And that’s only one paragraph!

Superstition pervaded every aspect of life. When the Senate convened, before any business was enacted, priests performed rituals to determine “the auguries,” or supernatural signs.  Flights of birds or lightning flashes were interpreted as warnings or encouragements.

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How to say ‘no’ to a wonderful opportunity

“They said to Him, ‘Lord! Everyone is looking for you.’ He said to them, ‘Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth’” (Mark 1:35-38).

Turning down a lousy request is no problem.

–“Hey Joe! Wanna go bungee jumping?” Ha. Not in this lifetime.

–“Hey preacher! How about a night of bar-hopping on Bourbon Street!” You talking to me, Leroy?

–“Pastor, would you write a book on the superiority of your theological system over all others?”  Uh, no.  But have a nice day.

Saying ‘no’ to something you hate to do, do not want to do, cannot do, and would not be caught dead doing–piece of cake.

No one has to counsel you on how to do that.

It’s all those other requests that you find difficult to turn down.

“Would you judge our city’s beauty contest?” Okay, no one has actually asked me to do that, but I live in hope. A preacher, if asked to do this, which I find inconceivable, should turn it down for a hundred rather obvious reasons.

Anyway, back to the subject with more plausible invitations…

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59 things not to say to a preacher

1. “I enjoyed your little talk.”

2. “Is what you said true, or was that just preacher talk?”

3. “I heard (famous preacher) preach that same sermon on television.  He did it so much better.”

4. “Could you come to my home and preach that sermon to my husband?”

5. “You ought to hear the pastor at our church.  He’s been to seminary.”

6. “Our church is so much bigger (better, friendlier, whatever) than yours.”

7. “The restroom is out of paper.”

8. “My cousin said I would like your preaching. It’s all right, I guess.”

9. “Someone–I’m not saying who–told me to tell you….”

10. “Can I come by your office in the morning?  I might need a couple of hours of your time.”

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A natural disposition toward shallowness: The preacher’s occupational hazard

“I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness.  I now work as a pundit and columnist.  I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality.  –David Brooks, “The Road to Character”

We preachers have a great deal in common with “pundits and columnists.”

We are constantly driving ourselves to produce the next sermon, develop the next church program, write the next article, and find the perfect staff member–no matter whether we feel up to it or not.  We work to appear confident.

Never let ’em see you sweat.  That’s how the commercials phrase it.

As a result, we tend to gravitate toward superficiality and shallowness.

It goes with the job, I suppose.  An occupational hazard?

Once in a while there comes along a great quote with wonderful insights into the Scripture, better understanding of Christian principles, and a clearer handle on the facts of life. We gladly queue up to drink at the fountain of such deep thinkers. My personal favorite is Clive Staples Lewis.

Elizabeth Elliot called C. S. Lewis, “That wonderful man who seems to have thought through everything.”  I have found myself quoting both Lewis and Mrs. Elliot, not only because of the great sound bytes, but because they are often clear on a matter I’ve not thought through. So, it’s easier just to quote someone else.

Shallowness: A way of life for many of us in the ministry.

There is a reason for this sad condition:  When you are under the gun to turn out several sermons a week in addition to all the other tasks pastors must attend to, you simply do not have the time to pursue most subjects to the depth you should and would like. (That’s one reason I have treasured retirement. Finally, I have the time!)

I criticize pastors who plagiarize, but I understand how it happens.

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The accidental blessing that lasts a lifetime

I was a freshman in college and as was the custom in that school at that time, every student worked on campus two days a week. We were remunerated at the rate of fifty cents an hour for two eight-hour days.  Hey, this was the late 1950’s and no one was complaining.

Anyway, on one of my classroom dates, a classmate named Bob asked if I’d like to make a little extra money.  He’d been asked by the wife of the college president to wash the windows at the presidential home.  “Sure,” I said, “I’ll give it a try.”

That afternoon, Bob and I washed windows at the presidential home.  Not a huge job, nothing too difficult, but not my favorite thing to do.  So, next day, I did not show up.  This was no big deal to me because I had never committed to a second day in the first place.

That night in the dorm, Bob said to me, “You’re in trouble.”  I said, “Really? For what?”  “The president’s wife was upset that you did not keep your promise.”

I said, “I made no promise.  And so I broke none.”

“Well, even so,” he said, “she wants to talk to you.”

I shrugged it off.

Next afternoon someone called my name on the floor of our dorm.  “Telephone!”

It was the president’s wife.

“Can you meet me out front in five minutes?”

“Sure,” I said, still wondering what was up.

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The games some preachers play with God’s Word

“I did not send these prophets, yet they ran with a message; I did not speak to them, but they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21).

What if we sliced off a bit of scripture here, pasted it in there, omitted a reference over yonder, and pretended the result is what Jesus actually said?

That happens.  (Fortunately, it happens rarely.  But it is done often enough to make it a concern to those who value God’s word and our integrity.)

Here’s my story from a few years back, one that still smarts….

At a preachers conference, we heard a stem-winding brother drive the several hundred of us to our feet in a shouting, hand-clapping final eruption of praise and joy.  He was good, I’ll give him that.

His text was Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.”  His theme was that God’s people today have no trouble with Jesus Christ being “the same yesterday”–His birth in Bethlehem, His miracle-working ministry across Galilee and Judea, followed by His sacrificial death and His divine resurrection–and no trouble with Jesus Christ being “the same forever”–as we proclaim His return to earth, the judgment, and His forever reign.

The problem present-day Christians have, said the preacher, is with “Jesus Christ today.”

We have no difficulty believing He did all those great things in the past and that He will do all He has promised for the future.  We just refuse to believe He can help us at this moment, said the speaker.

In order to illustrate this scripturally, he directed us to Bethany where Lazarus lay dead four days while everyone waited for the Lord to come.  (That’s John 11.)  When our Lord arrived, Lazarus’ sister Martha rushed to meet Him.

“Lord, if you had only been here!” she exclaimed.  “He would not have died.  You could have done something.”  She believed in Jesus Christ yesterday.

A moment later, she said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”  She believed in Jesus Christ forever.

The problem she had was Jesus Christ today, said the minister. Just like many of us.

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The pastor is called to an ignorant church; what to do

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).

The pastor was excited about the new assignment God was giving him. In a parting comment to a friend, he assessed the spirituality of the church he was leaving behind:

“There is enough ignorance in this county to ignorantize the whole country.”

We could wish such churches were rare.  Unfortunately, they’re not.

What happens when a pastor gets called to a church like that? What’s the new pastor to do when the congregation does not know the Word of God and have no idea of how things should be done or why it matters.

Such a church often exists only to condemn sin and sinners, knows only slivers of Scripture, sees pastors as slaves of the whims of the congregation, and is ready to reject any minister who believes the church should feed the hungry, take a stand for justice, and/or invite in the minority neighbors.

Veteran preachers have stories of those churches, tales of run-ins with those leaders, and scars from the battles they have waged to set matters right.

–One pastor told the group of ministers meeting in his fellowship hall, “This building is actually owned by a member of the KKK. We rent it from him.”  The rest of us naively thought the Ku Klux Klan had died out ages ago. Here they were living among us in our own southern town.

–One lady visible in church leadership told her pastor (me!), “I don’t know what the Bible says but I know what I believe.”

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My seven worst mistakes as a pastor

In a national publication, one of our denomination’s leaders was giving seven mistakes he had made in ministry.  Every preacher will identify with them…

He wishes he had spent more time in prayer…given his family more time…spent more time sharing his faith….had loved his community more…had led his church to focus more on the nations…he wishes he had focused on critics less…and last: he wishes he had accepted the reality that he cannot be everywhere and meet every need.

That started me thinking about my own list.  Now, a list of goofs I have made since entering the ministry in 1962 to the present would be limited only by how much time I had.    I can think of 10 mistakes I made as a preacher, 10 as a pastor, 10 as a visionary leader for my church, 10 as a leader of the church ministerial staff, 10 as a denominational worker….

Get the idea? Anyone who does anything for the Lord and mankind in this life is going to do a less than perfect job.

No one wants to grovel in regrets. I assure you I don’t. (Even though I fully intend to give you my list.)

But there is a huge reason for not dwelling on our failures and mistakes: God works even in our mistakes and can make good emerge from them. As a result, even though we look back and see the times we dropped the ball, we give thanks for what He accomplished through it all.

God can bring much out of little and good out of bad. He knows what he is about.

Okay. On to my list of worst mistakes as a pastor.

1. I should have found a mentor early in my ministry and made good use of him.

After majoring in history in college, I began pastoring. Not exactly great preparation for this work. My efforts were like trying to invent the wheel. I started from scratch in every sense of the word. What I wish I had known–and had the gumption to act on–is that behind the door of almost every Baptist church (and a lot of others) was a veteran preacher who would have been glad to spend time with this kid pastor and help him. All I had to do was ask. And I didn’t.

I didn’t ask because I didn’t know they were available. So I tried it all by myself. Over the years, I’ve worked to mentor a lot of young preachers. I remember what it was like being in their shoes.

2. I wish I had become a better, more disciplined student of the Word.

Now, my hunch is most of my professors thought I was a pretty good student. I made good grades. Not the best in the class, necessarily, but did well enough to get into the doctoral program without taking anything of a remedial nature. But I knew I was coasting.

What I wish I’d done back in college was to get with some excellent students and copied their study practices. As it was, I seemed to do as little as I could get by with.

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Pastor, when something doesn’t sound right

This has happened to me again and again. I’m sitting in some huge meeting with hundreds of the Lord’s people representing churches across our state or country. A large number of preachers are in the audience. The speaker is sounding forth on some subject of importance to us all.

Suddenly, the speaker comes out with a statement that gets a hearty “amen,” something that sounds profound and undergirds the point he is making. He goes on in the message and everyone in the room but one person stays with him. Me, I’m stuck at that statement. Where did he get that, I wonder. Is it true? How can we know?

If “Facebook,” that wonderful and exasperating social networking machine, has taught us anything, it’s to distrust percentages and question quotations.

A Facebook friend’s profile contained a quote from President Kennedy. I happen to know the quote and while I cannot prove JFK never uttered those words–how could we prove that someone never said a thing?–I know how the line got attached to the Kennedys. It’s a quotation from a George Bernard Shaw play.

Some see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I see things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’

In 1968, at the funeral of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Ted Kennedy spoke those words as applying to him. It’s a terrific depiction of vision. For most of us, I imagine it was our first time to hear the quote. The source was not given in the oration, which may have led some to believe Senator Kennedy made it up.

One thing we know, however, is President John F. Kennedy is not its source. Nor is any Kennedy. And yet, keep your eye out for that quotation. Half the time, its source will be listed as one of the Kennedys.

Accuracy is important for all of us, but particularly those of us called to preach the Truth to get people to Heaven.

Unfortunately, because we speak so often, our sermon machines devour a lot of fodder. It figures that sometimes we are going to get our stories wrong.

That’s why a statement from a preacher hit me so hard and drove me to do a little research.

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The pastor’s passion

A 10-year-old girl said something that has had me thinking about passion ever since.

Interesting word, passion. It gives us compassion, passive, dispassionate, and a host of related concepts. At its core, from the Latin, “passion” means “to suffer.” It’s opposite, passive, or impassive, means “unfeeling.”

I was teaching cartooning to children in the afternoons following vacation Bible school. At one point, I had to take a phone call and turned the class over to my teenage grand-daughter who was assisting me. Ten minutes later, I told the children about the call.

“One of the editors of a weekly Baptist paper in another state called about using a certain cartoon. I found the drawing in a file and scanned it into the computer and emailed it to her. Next week, that cartoon–which is still in that file cabinet in my office–will be seen in 50,000 newspapers in homes all over that state.”

Then I asked the question on their minds but which none dared to raise.

“Now, how much money do you think I made doing that?”

Some kid said, “Thousands.” The rest had no idea.

“Zero,” I said. “Not a dime.”

“Very few cartoonists make much money doing this. Almost all have to have ‘day’ jobs to pay the rent.”

“So why,” I asked, “do we keep drawing cartoons when it doesn’t pay much money?”

That’s when the 10-year-old girl raised her hand and said something I had never really thought of.

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