The scars tell the story on us

My son was trying to find a good used car for his daughters. Since their big brother had just graduated, Abby and Erin would be driving themselves to school in the fall.  Twice Neil found possibilities, but wisely took the cars to a trusted mechanic for his appraisal.

It fell to me to drive the second of these cars to the repair shop. Our mechanic friend studied the car, drove it a bit, then recommended we not buy it for a number of reasons. Then, he said, “Come here, Reverend. I want to show you something.”

“See those dirty stains on the seats?”

Each seat carried rust-colored stains in wavy lines.

“This car has been flooded,” said Rick.  “And here is something else.”

There were scratches–horizontal, odd-looking lines–on the hood and the trunk. “This is where things scraped over the car,” he said.

I thought of the 100,000 automobiles that were ruined in 2005 Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. In many cases, the water was six to ten feet deep, and lingered for weeks. I’ve seen photos and heard stories from friends who drove boats over parking lots where all you could see were the tops of cars. It’s easy to imagine something being dragged across a flooded car.

Eventually, the cars were towed and left under bridges and interstates for months before being disposed of.

Later, we learned that some people were doing hasty repair jobs on the flooded cars and passing them off as normal. “Buyer beware” became the mantra.

I said, “Thank you, Rick. I would not have known what to look for.”

Our mechanic friend saved us a lot of headaches and heartaches, and doubtless a good deal of money in repair jobs.

People who go through storms in this life, like that car often carry the scars and stains for the rest of their days.

Some of those stains and scars are visible, if you know what you are looking for….

anger that seems to have no basis in reality. A floating hostility will attach itself to whatever target (or victim) is handy.

I once pastored a church following a huge split where people had fought verbal battles and took no prisoners. Years later, a few members still carried deep anger over what had been done or said. The stains of that church storm were imbedded so deeply inside them only the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus Christ was sufficient to remove it.

–a sense of entitlement, the feeling that “the world owes me big time after all I’ve been through.”

Such a church member can be a major pain to everyone around him. Pity the new pastor who walks into a congregation without knowing the human traps laying in wait. For members who feel they are owed a great deal in life, nothing the pastor does will ever be enough. They are chronically dissatisfied and will spread their poisonous infection to the rest of the church.

–an all-encompassing fear of conflict and trouble.  After the nightmares they have been through, they will do anything to avoid similar crises in the future.

I experienced this syndrome personally. The church I left had been embattled from the first day I arrived, and the one to which I came was trying to recover from a stormy pastorate which had decimated the congregation. If it had been up to me, I would never have led a church business meeting or attended a deacons meeting again.  A few of the really ragged ones were enough for a lifetime. And yet, every church deserves a healthy pastor and a solid program. So, I had to face my fear of conflict. Eventually, I recovered and was later able to assist other churches going through their own storms.

–a distrust of the Almighty.  “Where was God when my house was destroyed?” “If Jesus loves the church, why did He let them run off our wonderful pastor?” “If God is good, then why did my mother die in that flood?” “Why did God let that church mistreat my father the way they did?”

There are answers for these questions. However, just voicing their distrust is for many war-veterans the beginning and end of their theological musings.

On the other hand, many of the stains and scars of life’s storms are not so obvious and can be unearthed only by those willing to look beneath the surface or who are skilled at people-helping….

–A church I pastored had a leader who criticized everything and was satisfied with nothing. Only when I called on him at home did I learn of the daily physical pain the man lived with. Something in his past had scarred him for a lifetime.

–A deacon with enormous influence and leadership skills built a strong following in every church and then fought his pastor for control. His poor pastors were no match for the man’s tactics and were frequently left bleeding in the road.  Someone who had known the deacon most of his life told me his father had been a pastor and he suspects that God had called that deacon to preach early in life, but that he resisted.  Whatever went on inside him back then seemed to be continuing, with his relationships paying a huge price.

I quickly admit that I’m no psychiatrist. I’m not one of these people who can see beneath the surface and tell what’s going on with people. I tend to take them at face value, and often turn out to be wrong about them.

Here is what I know…

–Scars on our bodies tend to fix forever in our minds the history that was occurring at that moment. A V-shaped scar on my left index finger is the result of this 5-year-old reaching up to the hot stove to take hold of a pot. How that melted my skin into a “V,” I’ll never know, but there it is.  About the same time, I received the scar at the corner of an eye, the result of being chased by a big brother and falling onto the broken rim of a galvanized wash tub. And one more. What appear to be frown-marks between my eyebrows are scars from the time I was riding in the funeral home car and a fellow in a pickup truck ran a stop sign. We broad-sided him and my forehead broke the dashboard.

–When law enforcement agencies are seeking a missing person or a criminal, in giving the description they will frequently refer to the identifying scars.  They brand us, you might say.

–Our own scars are records of events and people and times in our lives when something happened.

Marijohn Wilkin wrote an unforgettable gospel song about Heaven that carries this profound line: The only thing there that’s been made by a man are the scars in the hands of Jesus.

 

 

 

What I hate most about my preaching

No one enjoys second-guessing himself, what Warren Wiersbe called “doing an autopsy on oneself.”

It’s possible to work ourselves into the psych ward or an early grave by over-analyzing every single thing we do and questioning the motive behind each word we speak.

No one is suggesting that.

And yet, there is much to be said for looking back at what we did and learning from our mistakes and failures and omissions.

That’s what this is all about.

It’s best done in solitary. (One of the worst things we preachers do is to ask our wives, “How did I do?” Poor woman. She’s in a no-win situation. Leave her out of it.)

A recording of our preaching helps. (But we have to promise to stay awake during the playback.)

That said, I’ll get to the point.

What I hate most about my preaching is when I intrude too much into the message.

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My personal story about Dr. Billy Graham

I was in a congregation of ministers at First United Methodist in Birmingham once in the early 70s when Billy Graham entered the room.  A shock wave moved across the auditorium.  It was amazing, and I had no explanation for it.

He was God’s man.  No question about it.

During the last years of the 1980s, I pastored Charlotte’s First Baptist Church and visited with Billy and Ruth Graham on several occasions.  His sister Catherine belonged to my church, along with her family.  Mostly, the Grahams and I shared a hospital waiting room while their friend and my congregant Dr. Grady Wilson was in surgery.   Once I handed them a notepad and asked them to write their favorite scripture verse and sign it.  That this was a presumptuous thing to do never entered my mind.

Billy jotted down “Psalm 16:11” and signed that familiar name.  I said, “I’ve quoted that verse for years as Billy Graham’s favorite.”  Ruth Bell Graham laughed and said, “My favorite keeps changing!” As I recall, she wrote Proverbs 3:8-13 and signed it. My secretary had those two notes framed and they hung in my office for years, until I donated them to a fundraiser for a New Orleans ministry.

In November of 1987, the entire Graham team came to our church for the celebration of Evangelist Grady Wilson’s life.  My funeral message that day was rebroadcast worldwide on the Hour of Decision radio program which was so popular for a generation or more.  (I’ve teased that I should put that on my resume!)

In those days I recall how people in Charlotte spoke about Billy’s mother.  Mrs. Graham had been such a powerful witness for Christ, they said, and they told of Bible studies she had led in the retirement home where she had lived her last days.

But my favorite BG story concerns our first meeting.

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21 battle-tested truths I’ve learned about the Church

I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. (I Timothy 3:15). 

Church was always a part of our family’s life, starting with the New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church near Nauvoo, Alabama, continuing with the little Methodist Church in a mining camp near Beckley, West Virginia, four years later back to Nauvoo, then college chapel at Berry College near Rome, Georgia.  Then, at West End Baptist Church in Birmingham God did a dozen great things in my life forever changing my earthly and heavenly fate.  When I left West End, it was to pastor God’s churches.

The Southern Baptist Churches I was privileged to serve have been so faithful, so foolhardy, so daring, so wonderful–

–Unity Baptist Church, Kimberly, Alabama. (1962-63) They were the first, bless ’em.

–Central Baptist Church, Tarrant, Alabama (first six months of 1964, then off to seminary in New Orleans)

–Paradis Baptist Church, Paradis, LA (1965-67 My seminary pastorate. We lived in the back of the building.)

–Emmanuel Baptist Church, Greenville, MS (1967-70)

–FBC Jackson, MS (minister of evangelism) (1971-73)

–FBC Columbus, MS (1974-86)

–FBC Charlotte, NC (1986-89)

–FBC Kenner, LA (1990-2004)

–And finally, as a member (once again) of the great FBC of Jackson, MS, where Bertha and I are members in retirement.

Here is what I have learned–my TWENTY-ONE battle-tested, tried-in-the-fire-and-found-to-be-authentic, strongly held convictions about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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A good story will make my day. And your sermon.

The only thing I love more than hearing a great story is to be the one telling it.

I have good company in my devotion to the story. It forms the outline of every television soap opera, sitcom and cop show and most of the movies. It fells forests to supply paper for an unending outpouring of novels, all with a story to tell. It connects with people as nothing else does.

In My Reading Life, novelist Pat Conroy drops story upon story upon the reader, more than any single book I’ve read in a year.

Conroy tells of the time an agent for his publisher took him as a young, up-and-coming author to call on booksellers and attempt to market their latest line. The publisher wanted the budding author to see how difficult it is to get bookstores to take their publications and display them prominently. On the third day out, the agent suddenly turned to Pat and said, “You’ve seen me do this. Now, let’s see if you’ve got what it takes…. We know you can write a book; now let’s see if you can sell one.”

Conroy was game. He gave it a try. Addressing the bookseller, he launched into the chatter he’d heard from the agent, making the case for each of the new works coming from the publisher. Then he came to his own book, The Water is Wide. He described it.

The store owner said, “Who gives a d–n?”

Conroy was stunned. The man said, “What should my readers care what happened to a bunch of black kids on an island no one’s ever heard of?”

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Broken pastor, broken church

(This is our account of a difficult three years in our lives–‘ours’ referring to my wife Margaret and me–when we pastored a divided church in North Carolina. The article ran in the Winter 2001 issue of “Leadership Journal,” a publication of Christianity Today.  The explanatory notes at the end may be of interest to some.)

How could I lead a congregation that was as hurt as I was?

My calendar for the summer and beyond was blank. I usually planned my preaching schedule for a full year, but beyond the second Sunday in June–nothing. I had no ideas. I sensed no leading from the Spirit. But it was only January, so I decided to try again in a couple of months. Again, nothing. By then, I suspected the Lord was up to something.

A member of my church had told me the year before, “Don’t die in this town.” I knew what she meant. She didn’t envision Columbus as the peak of my ministry. Columbus was a county-seat town with three universities nearby, and, for Mississippi, cosmopolitan. I felt Columbus, First Baptist, and I were a good match. The church grew. We were comfortable together. My family was settled. Our sons and daughter had completed most of their schooling, and after twelve years, they called Columbus home. My wife, Margaret, and I had weathered a few squalls, but life was good–a little quiet, perhaps even stagnant, but good.

And suddenly I could hear the clock ticking. Did God have something more for me?

First Baptist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, called in March. I ended my ministry at Columbus the second Sunday of June and began in Charlotte one month later.

After I’d been in Charlotte about a month, the man who chaired their search committee phoned. “I have some people I want you to talk with,” he told me. He picked me up and drove me to the impressive home of one of our members. In the living room were a dozen men, all leaders in the church and in the city. Another man appeared in charge.

“We want to offer you some guidance in pastoring the church,” he said. “There are several issues we feel are important, and we want you to know where we stand.” He outlined their position on the battle between conservatives and moderates for control of our denomination and on the role of women in the church. He wanted women elected as deacons, one item in a full slate of changes he wanted made at the church.

Charlotte’s web

I was beginning to see what I had been told: a handful of very strong lay people had called the shots for more than two decades, and this was part of their plan.

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For you who would love to live in the “happy days” of the 1950s

In an article about change in worship we noted that some people in our churches seem to want to return to the 1950s.  One person responded to say she found absolutely nothing to like in the piece and said, “I’d love to live in the 1950s.”

Happy Days. Chevrolet convertibles with the huge fins.  Malt shops and sock hops.  Mayberry was America and America was Mayberry.  Ike was in the White House.  Elvis was in his ascendancy.  And Andy Griffith was sheriff.

What’s not to like, right?

I smile at that.

No one loves the 1950s more than those who never lived them.

My wife said, “In the 1950s, every time a plane went overhead I thought it might be carrying an atomic bomb to drop on us.”

Such was the attitude of fear pervading this land.

In the early 1950s, I recall walking home from church with my grandmother after one of those meetings in which the preacher scared the living whatever out of us, and hearing the planes overhead–hey, Birmingham had lots of planes!–and I was thinking the same thing as my  wife: “We’re goners.”

You want to return to that?

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When a pastor misrepresents himself, is it lying?

“Lie not one to another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created Him….” (Colossians 3:9-10).

I hate to admit this, but it needs to be done.

Preachers sometimes misrepresent themselves. 

Some claim to have degrees that sound authentic but were bought on the sly somewhere for the simple reason that they have learned laypeople in our churches are unsophisticated about that sort of thing but are impressed by high-sounding degrees. Some ministers claim to have been places they merely flew over, to know people they shook hands with, and to be more than they are.  Some give the appearance that they know the original languages when they are merely quoting something they picked up in a book.

There is no substitute for integrity in those called to preach the Word and lead the Lord’s flock.

A surgeon must have cleanliness in all he does; a teacher must have a love for the students at the heart of all she does; a carpenter must have the blueprint at the heart of all he does; and a pastor must have integrity at the heart of all he does.

Integrity. Truth. Honesty.  No deception. No embellishment. No twisting of the fact. No irresponsible reporting.  No claiming what is not so, no declaring what we do not know, and no using what belongs to another.

The temptation is ever with us to do otherwise.

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Things that “simply could not happen!” Oh no?

“Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins” (Psalm 19:13).

In the months leading up to the U.S. involvement in the Second World War, our country broke the Japanese secret code.  This means that Army and Navy personnel were reading Japan’s messages. We actually knew where their forces were most of the time and what they were planning.

All signs indicated they were going to attack the U.S. at Pearl Harbor.

And yet, when they did just that–December 7, 1941, that day of infamy–we were completely unprepared. Our battleships were parked side by side close up and made a great target for the Japanese torpedo bombers.  Our planes were parked in rows, as though for the sharpshooters at the county fair.

The Japanese had a field day.  A turkey shoot.

How had this happened?  How had they managed to catch us so completely off guard when we were reading their coded messages and knew what they were up to?

We did not believe what we were reading. This could not possibly happen.

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Why some marriages make it–against all expectations

My mother once asked if when couples come to see me with marriage plans, do I try to talk them out of it. She was teasing, but that’s not entirely a joke. If the preacher can, he perhaps ought to.

The problem is by the time they get to the pastor’s office, their minds are made up and no one can talk them into changing their plans. Unfortunately, in many cases, neither can you talk them into changing their mindsets.

But, we keep trying.

We preachers deliver sermonettes to them in the office, counsel them on what they’ve learned about themselves and each other, and hand them books to read, all in an attempt to get some new ideas into their minds and some growth into their relationship.

We give them Gary Chapman’s book, Five Love Languages, and say, “Don’t come back until you’ve read it. We’ll be talking about its insights at the next session.” Once, when the groom-to-be said he had not had the time to read it, I lowered the boom on him. “Remember I told you I’m not charging you anything for my services? Well, if I’m going to sacrifice a little, you ought to, also!” I looked at him and said sternly, “Read the book!”

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