The surprises of the prodigal

“A certain man had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’  And he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, where he squandered his estate with loose living….” (Luke 15:11ff.)

The story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is iconic. That means it is typical, well-known, an accurate depiction of a thousand things about this life.  Understand that story and you know a great deal about how life works and what God does.

If you knew nothing more about God than how He is depicted in this parable, you would love him with all your heart.

You and I are represented by the foolish, younger son.

That son, the subject of a few million sermons and the inspiration of almost as many conversions, received a lot of surprises in this story…

One. He was surprised that the father granted his selfish request. Some lessons we just have to learn for ourselves, and the Father was a good teacher.

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Unwise prayers you hope God never answers

Dear Lord, even if I pray in faith and dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, but am praying something which I will regret forever and which is not what You have planned, please ignore me. Thank you for hearing this prayer!  

Three men in the Bible–really godly men, the best of the bunch–prayed at one time or other for the Lord to end their lives.

–Moses in Numbers 11:15 “If I’ve found favor in Thy sight, please kill me.”

–Elijah in I Kings 19:4 “That’s enough now, Lord. Take my life.  I’m no better than my fathers (and they’re all dead).”  My paraphrase.

–Jonah in Jonah 4:3 “Death is better to me than life, so please take my life from me, O Lord.”

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Advice to a young mother. Dad too.

From my journal of Wednesday, December 31, 1997.

In my morning radio program “Phone Call from the Pastor” (Lifesongs 89.1 New Orleans), I told this:

This is a message to a young mother of two boys I saw at McDonald’s on Airline Highway yesterday.  Your boys are perhaps 2 and 3-1/2.  You say they were born 18 months apart.  “They’re killing you,” I told you facetiously. “I hope you survive until they’re grown.”  But what I thought was, “I hope they survive.”

Their behavior is suicidal. They are well on their way to becoming society’s worst nightmare.  They are out of control.

You kept giving orders to the older one–sit down, be quiet, turn around, eat your lunch–and he kept ignoring and defying you.  There was fire in the little guy’s eyes.  He really did look like a miniature devil.

My heart went out to you.  My wife and I raised two little boys who were three years apart.  I know they can be very trying, especially on Mom.  So, what I’m about to suggest to you comes from some experience with this subject.

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One question you must never ask in ministry

“Sow your seed in the morning, and do not be idle in the evening, for you do not know whether morning or evening sowing will succeed, or whether both of them alike will be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

Was it worth it?

You do not know which will succeed.  If both will.  Or neither.

Disciples of Jesus Christ must never try to calculate the cost/benefit of some act of ministry.

Our assignment is to obey. To be faithful.

We have no idea how God will use something we do, whether He will, or to what extent He will.  We do the act and leave the matter with Him as we move on to our next assignment.

Every pastor will identify with the following scenario….

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What pastors can learn from football coaches

Jim Mora was the popular coach of the New Orleans Saints NFL team.  On one occasion, as he and I shared an elevator, I introduced myself. I said, “Preachers can appreciate what coaches have to put up with.  We both work hard all week and everything comes down to a couple of hours on Sunday.  It’ll make or break you.”

He flashed that smile that charmed every fan, calmed many a sportswriter, and drove a few referees nuts. “But,” he said, “they don’t call radio stations the next week criticizing every little decision you made, do they?”

No, I guess not.  A friend said, “If they’d pay me the zillion bucks these guys get, I could stand that.”

Now, football coaches and pastors probably have more that differentiates us than we have in common.  A coach tends a small flock, usually no more than 50 players and a few assistants.  At the upper echelon, he gets paid astronomical bucks, is answerable only to one or two bosses, and his season lasts just a few months.  The typical pastor may have a flock numbering in the hundreds and receive a salary barely sufficient to keep the house heated and the children clothed and fed.  The pastors are answerable to everyone and his brother, and work year round with no letup.

The coach’s job description can be summed up in a sentence or two: Win games and try not to embarrass the company.  But pastors, God bless ’em, labor under multiple layers of expectations and demands and requirements.

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Last one standing

In September 1939, Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty for the second time.  A quarter of a century earlier, during the First World War, he held the same position.  To assume the leadership of the greatest navy of the world twice was an amazing thing.  To do so 25 years apart was even more remarkable.

Churchill thought of all the great officers he had worked with the first time.  They were all gone now. He alone was still living and serving. In one of his books on the Second World War, Churchill quotes this little piece from the Irish poet Thomas Moore….

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Choosing: The precious, the load-bearing, the unseen

(My commencement message to the 2016 graduating class of William Carey University. Delivered Saturday afternoon, August 6, 2016.)

Dr. Larry Kennedy was President of this institution for the last decade of his life.  In the 1960s, Larry and I were seminary classmates, and then we pastored several churches in Mississippi near one another.  He told me this story.

“My son Steve was 7 years old when he went to his first big-church wedding. He sat in the sanctuary beside his mother and watched as the door in front opened and his dad walked out and took his place.  Behind him came six or seven good-looking young men dressed in tuxedos. Spread across the front of the church, they were a handsome lot.  The bridesmaids entered and took their places.  Finally, everyone stood as the bride entered on the arm of her father and moved slowly down the aisle.  At this point, Steve tugged on his mother’s arm.

“Mother, does she already know which one of those men she’s going to marry?  Or is she going to decide when she gets down there?”

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Why Southern Baptists are not tithing

Southern Baptists are not even approaching anything close to a tithe of their total income.” –Dr. Will Hall, “The Baptist Message”

The Baptist Message for October 8, 2015 goes into detail about the financial situation facing our denomination.  For the first time ever, we’re told, designated receipts are outpacing gifts to denominational causes through our Cooperative Program.

What that means is that our churches–and that means our pastors–are directing larger and larger portions of the offering plate money to the causes they wish to support.  As a result, they are slowly beginning the process of defunding the causes they’re not supporting.

Underlying the various aspects of this financial crisis is one huge factor: Fewer of our people are tithing their income through their churches these days.

Editor Will Hall writes, “Southern Baptists are robbing God…. Southern Baptists teach tithing, but whatever we are doing is not connecting with our people…”

That stopped me short.

I appreciate Will’s positive spin on things in saying we teach tithing.

But he’s wrong.

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The perfect story…a little too flawed for my personal comfort.

The story that follows is only one-half of this article.  Please stick around for some background and a little discussion on whether preachers should use such stories.

As I recall the story, here’s what happened….

During the Second World War, John Blanchard was stationed at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.  One Sunday afternoon, he walked down to the base library and checked out several books. He took them back to his room and lay on the bunk flipping through  them. One was a book of poetry.

Blanchard quickly decided the poetry was not very good, but what made the book special was the previous owner–clearly a woman, with wonderful flowing handwriting in green ink–had written in the margins.  Her notes, Blanchard saw, were better than the poetry.  He devoured the  book and her comments.  For the next couple of days, his mind kept going back to what he had read.

Blanchard noticed that the owner’s name was in the front of the book. Miss Hollis Maydell of New York City.  He did a little sleuthing and found an address for her, then wrote a letter telling of finding the book and how he was fascinated by her comments. He invited her to correspond with him.

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The pictures we made at the hospital and cemetery

My daughter has been posting some photos which I would just as soon didn’t ever see the light of day.  It’s not that they’re bad pictures or that I don’t love the people in them.

They were shot either at the hospital where my wife lay on life support for six days or at the church in the luncheon following her funeral.  And they all have one terrible thing in common.

We’re all smiling.

I’ve noticed this in photographs our family has made in years past.  We would be at the funeral of my parents or a beloved aunt or uncle, and after the ceremonies have ended and people are milling around greeting one another or saying their farewells, someone breaks out a camera and begins grouping us.  And without fail, we do it.

We all smile.

I suppose it’s because we were taught from childhood if someone points a lens in our direction, we smile.  I certainly ask every person who sits before me to be sketched to smile.  Everyone looks better smiling, “including you,” I tell them.

But sometimes, it feels like a smile is out of place.

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