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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If you would serve the Lord, expect obstacles

“A great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (I Corinthians 16:9). 

“We exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance…” (Romans 5:3). 

This is a quiz.  Name the enemies George Washington faced in the Revolutionary War.

If you answered, “The British,” you’d be only partly right.

Washington did fight the British, as the thirteen colonies asserted their independence from the Mother Nation.  But Generals Howe, Cornwallis, and Clinton and their armies were only the most visible of the forces Washington had to contend with.

He had to fight the weather.  Think of Valley Forge and even without knowing the full story, your mind immediately conjures up images of a harsh winter with all the snow, ice, sleet, and freezing temperatures that includes.

Washington had to deal with starvation and deprivation.  No one knows how many thousands of his soldiers perished from the cold and starvation at Valley Forge and how many deserted in order to save their lives.  Many surrendered to the British at Philadelphia in the vain hope that the conquerors would feed and clothe them.

Washington had to deal with a Congress that was either ignorant, misinformed, or outright hostile to his situation. He wrote letter after letter detailing the misery of his army and pleading for help.  Finally, a delegation came from the national capital, temporarily at York, PA, to see for themselves, after which congress began to act.

Washington fought disorganization, a country that made impossible demands but gave minimal support, and criticism on every side.

Still with me?

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Blindsided by opposition: Welcome to the ministry, young pastor.

(In our experience, most of the Lord’s people are wonderful and most of His churches are filled with sincere and godly workers. But once in a while, pastors come upon sick churches led by difficult people who seem to delight in controlling their ministers. When they find themselves unable to do this, they attack. Pity the poor unsuspecting preacher and his family. What follows is written just for them.)

“But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the courts, and scourge you in their synagogues….” (Matthew 10:17)

You and your wife–please adjust gender references herein as your situation demands–went into the ministry with heads high, hearts aglow, and eyes wide open, idealism firmly tucked under your arm, vision clear and focus solid.

As newly minted ambassadors for Christ, the two of you were ready to do battle with the world, eager to serve the saints, and glad to impart the joyful news of the gospel.

Ministry was going to be great and noble and even blessed.

That’s what you thought.

You expected the work to be hard, the hours long, and the needs great.

What you did not expect was to be blindsided by members of your own church leadership–to be slandered by people you counted on as friends when you took a courageous position, criticized for something you did well, even lied about.

You knew there would be vicious people “in the world,” outsiders who do not believe in God, who cannot discern spiritual things, and who refuse to subject themselves to moral absolutes.

You were ready for that.

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The power of a good life-altering crisis

“No chastening for the moment seems enjoyable, but painful. But afterwards, to those who have been trained by it,  it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11).

In the middle of the pain, no one enjoys the experience. Only in looking back–at some distant day–do you see how God  used it.

Life is understood only in looking backward, the saying goes. But it must be lived going forward.

It doesn’t work that way for everyone, Hebrews 12:11 is implying. For some, the trials are fatal.  It just depends.  “To those who have been trained by it” surely means “the people who have learned to give their woes to the Lord for His purposes.”

We can wallow in our defeat, be chained in despair by our sorrows and troubles, or we can rise above them by putting our trust in the Savior and finding His purposes.

In her book Character, Gail Sheehan tells of the lengthy rehabilitation Bob Dole endured after his World War II injury. German machine gunfire had hit him in the upper back and right arm. Medics gave him the largest possible dose of morphine, then wrote “M” (for morphine) on his forehead with his own blood, so no one who found him would give him a second, fatal dose.   Dole went through multiple surgeries and experienced recurring blood clots, life-threatening infections, and long periods of recuperation and therapy.  That he lived through all this was a miracle of the first dimension.

An interviewer once asked Senator Dole, “How did this delay your career plans?”

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What lazy theologians do

Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1749.  Yet because of opposition from local clergymen–man should not dare ‘avert the stroke of heaven’–the lighthouse did not receive protection from God’s thunderbolts for more than two decades.  –The New York Review, May 26, 2016

Imagine the thinking of some people: We shouldn’t protect ourselves from lightning, lest we interfere with God’s judgment.

Abandoning their responsibility, criticizing those trying to help, and blaming their warped thinking on God.

“This is how God set things up.”

Interesting theology, I think we can agree.

If we carried that reasoning to its natural lengths, no one should wear seat belts or repair the brakes on cars just in case the Father in Heaven had planned to kill us that morning.

God should always be given a free hand in these things.

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When a friend hurts

When my pastor friend’s grandchild died in a drowning accident, we were all shocked and saddened.  I wrote this for him and his family.  (That was a number of years ago, and my heart hurts for these good people yet.) 

If our grief could ease just a sliver of your grief, you would have none left because so many friends are sorrowing for you today.

If our tears could dry your tears, you would weep no more, because so many are heartbroken for you today.

If our pain could erase yours, you would never against experience a moment’s discomfort the rest of your life, because so many are hurting for you today.

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A loving God would not let anyone suffer. Say what?

Some guy in Alabama ticked me off.

I was driving back home from two weeks of ministry in Tennessee and Kentucky when I bought a Birmingham News in Tuscaloosa. At a rest stop in Mississippi, I scanned it and was snagged by a letter to the editor from an outspoken agnostic.

After reading it and fuming a little, I tossed the paper in the trash. Later, wished I’d kept it just for reference here. So I’m going by memory.

The writer wanted the world to know that recent tornadoes in Alabama proved beyond doubt either that there is no God or if there is, He is a tyrant who delights in doing cruel things.

He was clearly proud of his great letter. I’m betting he clipped it and displayed it somewhere prominent in his house.

I have no idea whether anyone responded to his letter. Probably not. The Bible cautions against answering fools, and this guy surely fits that category.

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My biggest challenge in crisis ministry

A friend on the staff of a large church emailed about a family basically living in the ICU ward of a local hospital in our city. Doctors had told the parents nothing more can be done for the daughter. So they were standing by, waiting for God to take her home.

The friend asked if I could visit this family.

An hour later, I was in their hospital room.

The patient lay there heavily sedated, while family members and friends were seated around the room, talking softly.  They greeted me warmly, having been informed that I was coming.

Two things about this family I found amazing.  They had lived in the intensive care units of their hospital back home and this one in my city for over 40 days.  And yet, there was such a steady peace and beautiful joy about them.

The question I face 

That brings me to my dilemma, one I have frequently encountered when calling on the families of Godly people going through various kinds of crises:  Do I enter into their joy or remain outside?

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Thank you, Father, for trusting me with the pain

“No suffering for the present time seems joyful but grievous; nevertheless, afterward….it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11).

“And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (II Timothy 3:12).

I hated the pain at the time, Lord.

It’s no fun hurting, lying awake at night hoping for sleep that will not come, wishing for relief and seeing none on the horizon.  At those times I knew why some turn to drink or drugs or worse, but that issue was settled decades ago, Lord, that I would not be bypassing, shortcutting, or tranquilizing whatever you send me in this life.

Remember that time back in the 1960s when a few unhappy people were stirring up matters in your church, saying that I was pushing integration and was going to destroy their church?  Remember that?  I do too.  Oh, how I do.  That was no fun.

As though it were their church. That’s a laugh.  They’re long off the scene and Your church is still there. And integrated, too, I imagine. (smiley-face goes here)

Remember the time they spread the rumor that my wife and I were divorced and that there was deceit in my background, and I didn’t find out about it until it had circled the earth for a solid year?  That was painful, too.

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Two small articles that changed my life forever

The Commission magazine exists now only on-line but for many generations it arrived in the homes and churches of Southern Baptists all over the country. I’ve known and appreciated several of its editors and grieved when it went out of business. (It was the monthly publication of the SBC International Mission Board, headquartered in Richmond.)

Two things in that magazine changed my life forever. They were so tiny, I’m confident that the people who dropped them in had no idea how powerful they were and no inkling of how God would use them.

We need a cartoonist! 

The first was a tiny notice in the fall of 1976 announcing that a cartoonist was needed by the missionaries in Singapore. As a part of their urban strategy, they wanted to produce an evangelistic comic book and distribute to teens all over that island nation.

They needed someone to draw it.

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