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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“Get on with your work,” said the Lord.

“Neither do these things move me,” said Paul. “Nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

I enjoy telling of the last words–okay, “some” of the last–of Ty Cobb, the baseball great.  For 22 years, he played lights-out ball for the Detroit Tigers, setting records many of which are still on the books.  I was told he gave his life to Jesus Christ and was transformed sometime in the last weeks or months of his life.

He sent a message to the men he’d played ball with.

“Tell them, ‘fellows, I got in the bottom of the ninth.  I sure wish I’d come in the top of the first.'”

If we think of our lives like a nine-inning ball game, the final inning would be our last time to do anything before the “game was called” and the park was darkened.

What inning are you in?

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“I Delight in Thy Word!” — Vignettes 21-25

(This is the fifth segment of five brief Bible studies, on our way to 20 segments containing one hundred mini-studies.  The idea is to select very brief but poignant biblical texts, those we tend to rush past, and pull us back for more spiritual nourishment. To check out the previous segments, go to and scroll back into January, 2015.)

21)  There’s something in Exodus 20 we must not miss. And it’s not the Ten Commandments!

“An altar of earth you shall make for me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings….. If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it” (Exodus 20:24-25).

I find this stunning. In the same chapter where God gives Israel the Ten Commandments, He makes provisions for an altar. Altars are places of death, where animals are slaughtered as sin-substitutes.  According to this text, the altar could be made of dirt or rock, either one.

So much for the way of salvation being to “just keep the commandments.”  (The next time you hear someone say that is their religion, ask them why God included provisions for an altar in the same chapter.  They will not have an answer, believe me.)

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Things a pastor does not tell

I had a phone call from my insurance man the other day.

Jim lives in another city and we never see each other, but his company is national and I saw no reason to switch homeowners insurance when he moved away.  He’s a solid Christian and I like him.

When Jim believes something, he can be tenacious.

He called urging me to vote for a certain candidate for the U.S. Senate.  I listened to him and when he insisted that I go to a certain website and watch a video, I made no promises.  That did not please him. Frankly, listening to claims and arguments and promises from political candidates is not on my list of favorite things to do.  The attacks and disclaimers are so arbitary and voters are rarely treated as though they have a lick of sense and the judgment of an adult that I try to skip them as much as possible.

Jim called later to see if I had listened to the tape.  I forget what I told him, but I tried to say gently that he had done quite enough.

A couple of days later, I went to the courthouse and voted absentee since I’ll be in another state in revival on election day.

I did not say and would not if asked, how I voted.

It’s no one’s business.

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Today’s headline: Teachers are arrested for having sex with a 16-year-old student

“Now Eli was very old, and he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting” (I Samuel 2:22).

(From time to time on this website, we post warnings to ministers about the dangers of sexual transgressions and urge great care in relationships with everyone, male or female. Invariably, some people reply that the fault belongs completely with the lecherous ministers, or they wonder why I’m always blaming the women.  Nevertheless, the news today reminds us to keep trying to get this across. The battle is never-ending.)

There is nothing new under the sun. Unfortunately.

In a high school not far from where I live, two women teachers–both of them gorgeous and young, by the front-page photos–were arrested yesterday for inviting a 16-year-old male student to an apartment and having three-way sex with him.  Both women are English teachers, and one is exactly twice the age of the student.

The fall-out from this tragic event is enormous.  Lives are disrupted, the school is in turmoil, and families are torn up.

We have laws against this for good reason.

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How to study a Scripture all by yourself–and find it life-changing

“If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror; for he looks at himself, goes away, and right away forgets what kind of man he was” (James 1:23-24).

I’m going to suggest that you find a scripture–a story, a teaching, or a scene–and live in it for a few days.

Doing so might change forever how you study the Word.

A certain text has snagged your attention and you wonder why.  Perhaps it puzzled you or intrigued you, angered you even or delighted you.  Whatever your reaction, the fact that your attention was directed there is often the Holy Spirit indicating He has something rich for you here, something He is sending just for you.

That’s pretty wonderful when that happens.

Before zeroing in on one of those stories for this study–an example of a parable that is far richer than I ever imagined at first–let me mention some favorite scenes in the Gospels which I have found to be rich and “loaded.”  You may find one of them to be just your size and one you will want to live with for the next few days.

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What’s in a name? Apparently a great deal.

“I have called you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).

“When the shepherd puts forth his sheep, he calls them by name” (John 10:3).

The sweetest sound in all the world, we’re told, is our own name.

We can be dozing through the roll call, but the sound of our own name being spoken penetrates the mist and wakes us up.

We can be reading a report or newspaper and hardly paying attention. Our own name in black and white jumps out at us. It may as well have been in letters three inches high.

My name is who I am.

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The wimp in me hates to be criticized.

“Behold, my son who came out from me seeks my life; how much more now this Benjamite?  Let him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him” (2 Samuel 16:11).

There’s something about us preachers that loves compliments and runs from criticism.

We preachers can be the biggest wimps on the planet.

Maybe it’s that way with everyone, I don’t know.

Let a preacher receive an anonymous note outlining what he’s doing wrong or a phone call dissecting last Sunday’s sermon and he is done for the week. He will be needing the attention of a good therapist.

We could learn a lot from politicians and others in the public arena. I’ve read that President Eisenhower enjoyed something like a 65 percent approval rating all eight years of his presidency, the highest of anyone since.  This means 35 percent of the America public thought he was a failure.  And yet, he is lauded as a winner.

Let 35 percent of the typical church give their preacher a vote of no-confidence and he’s enduring sleepless nights, unable to focus on anything, and scheduling himself for career counseling at his denominational headquarters.

All of this was prompted by two things.

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The easiest texts are often the hardest to preach

“Be ye kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32).

For good reason, young beginning pastors do not take the standard old texts for their first sermons.  Few feel qualified to produce a full sermon on such subjects as:

John 3:16.  The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). Salvation by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Love one another (John 13:34-35). Forgiveness. The home. Kindness (see above).

That’s why beginning preachers almost always gravitate to the exotic texts.  They find those strange little metaphors, unusual verses, and unfamiliar images and light on them.

Perhaps it’s easier to get their minds around such, I don’t know.  One of my first sermons was suggested by “a house in a cucumber patch,” from Isaiah 1:8.  That image had brought to mind an old bungalow where some relatives of ours used to live far out in the country, but which was later abandoned and soon completely covered by kudzu vines.  Eventually, a massive mound of green vines stood there, hiding what used to be a house. What point my sermon made from that has long been forgotten.

Why didn’t I preach on grander (and safer?) subjects like the incarnation of Jesus, His miracles, His amazing teachings and sinless life, and of course, His death, burial, and resurrection?  Answer: Any of those subjects would be so huge and I felt so small.

I could no more preach a full-length sermon on John 3:16 than swim the Atlantic.

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