A great illustration of the importance of a good church

Robert Caro had a problem.

He was researching and writing an in-depth biography of Robert Moses, the highly acclaimed “master builder” of New York City, who lived 1888 to 1981.  Originally, Caro thought the book might take a year.

He was wrong. Bad wrong.

After a couple of years working on the book, his income ran out and he had to find a way to support his family.   They sold the house.

After a couple of years, that money ran out.

He kept working.

In time, he was embarrassed when friends would say, “What are you working on?” and he would tell them he was still on the same book.  “How long have you been working on that book?”  He would mutter, “Five years.”

Five years.  Caro felt like a failure.

The original publisher, the one that had advanced him $2,500 with the warning that no one would want to read a book on Robert Moses, finally cut him loose.  He signed on with another agent, a good one, and in time ended up with a 1300 page book that won the Pulitzer.

A 1300 page book.  It won the Pulitzer.  Don’t miss that.

But long before that, while Caro was in the throes of writing and researching and feeling alone…

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Turning put-downs into motivation

“Jesus said, ‘No doubt you will quote this proverb to me, “Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” No prophet is welcome in his own hometown’” (Luke 4:24). 

John Fogerty’s group Creedence Clearwater Revival is unforgettable to anyone who has owned a radio in the last 50 years.  Once, in an interview with Dan Rather, Fogerty was remembering a key moment in their formative years.

The group was one of many bands to perform at a particular event.  As the final group to warm up, and thus the first band to appear on stage, suddenly CCR found they had been unplugged.  John Fogerty yelled to the sound man to plug them back up, that they weren’t through.  The technician did so reluctantly, then added, “You not going anywhere anyway, man.”  Fogerty said, “Okay.  Give me one year.  I’ll show you.”

One year later, the group was so hot with hit record after hit record (“Proud Mary,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Bad Moon Rising”) that “we were too big to play in that place any more!”

Turning sarcastic putdowns into a healthy sic ’em!

I was 25 and the newly called pastor of a church on Alligator Bayou some 25 miles west of New Orleans.  I was in my first year of seminary.  The church ran forty in attendance, just as it had done for the two decades of its existence.

Sunday morning, I’m standing outside the front door shaking hands as worshipers exit the building.  Behind us, just emerging through the doors, two men were talking.  They had no idea I could heard them.  One said, “Well, this little church is doing about all it’s ever going to do.”

The other fellow agreed.  But it was like a spark to my powder keg.  Everything inside me said, “We’ll show you!”

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When people write you letters….

I’m a letter-writer.  That should surprise no one since I’m part of the last generation of Americans to have been birthed and brought up on letter-writing. As a child of the 1940s, I remember so well the joy of my mother as she opened letters from her sister and mother on the Alabama farm.  Living in the coal fields of far-off West Virginia, Mama missed her family so much.  Aunt Sis would often include a couple of sticks of Juicy Fruit gum in the envelope.  Mom would tear off a piece and make those two last a week.

When I went off to college, I wrote letters–to my parents and to my girlfriend.

Somewhere in my files now are personal letters to me from Dr. Billy Graham, Cartoonist Charles Schulz, and western author Louis L’Amour.

I’m 81 years old (don’t look it–ha–and certainly don’t feel it) and count it a privilege.  Five minutes ago, I put in the outside mailbox four envelopes: two of them paying bills, one to a minister in Alabama and one to a cousin who is battling cancer.

I believe in letter-writing. But it takes effort.

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Preparing for the gospel ministry? Bring a strong curiosity.

I came by it honestly. My dad, a coal miner with a 7th grade education, was interested in everything. He read and learned and talked to us of all kinds of subjects.

In college, I changed my major from science (physics) to history because the professors in the science building were focusing more and more on tinier and tinier segments of the universe, whereas history deals with the entire sweep of life, every person who ever lived, every civilization, every lesson learned. Nothing is off limits to history.

That did it for me.

I’m remembering a life-changing trip to Southern Italy in 2012.  After several days of ministering to pastors and spouses from churches of many countries, I was among a busload who spent several hours touring the ruins of Pompeii, the Italian city devastated by the eruption of Vesuvius in August of A.D. 79. It was truly unforgettable. So much so, that….

After my arrival home in New Orleans, the next afternoon I was in our public library reading up on Pompeii. I checked out a Robert Harris novel titled “Pompeii,” and finished it the next night.

I felt like I’ve been living in Pompeii all week.

On my next trip to the library, I read up on the Roman aqueducts, which was a major theme of the novel.

Why? Of what possible use is this in my ministry?

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Bridging the cultural gap: Big task for the preacher

I was going to Italy to be the featured speaker for a pastors-and-wives retreat.  Those attending are all English-speaking serving churches across Europe as well as a few other countries. I was excited.
My host, head of the International Baptist Convention, pointed out a few things to keep in mind.

While everyone at the retreat will speak English, they are not all Americans. Therefore, I must be careful not to use idioms and references that only those from the USA (or even worse, the Deep South) will understand.

So, I started thinking over some of my choice stories. I have tales of growing up in rural Alabama, of small church preachers and narrow-minded Baptists and Southern ways.  I could see I was going to have to revisit all my messages and stories and illustrations. Once we begin in Italy, there would still need to be some fine-tuning and tweaking.

When a preacher ignores the cultural divide between himself and his audience, he could mess up royally.

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Well, if the dictionary says it, it must be so! (Not!!)

In “The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published,” David Skinner describes the hostile reaction that greeted the release of “Webster’s Third Edition” in 1961.  The incident provides an excellent lesson for all of us, particularly church folk.

But first, the context.

Skinner’s book traces the development of dictionaries in this country and their struggles to determine what goes in and what stays out. Then it chronicles the work of G. and C. Merriam Company to produce a new kind of dictionary, one unlike all the others.

The editors had arrived at the interesting conclusion that no one had made them the authority over the English language.  No one had put them in charge of English as spoken and written in America.  In fact, they decided there is no authority.

Imagine that.

This must have come as a shock to every teacher I ever had in elementary and high school.  Invariably, they would fault students for some breach of the language and add, “Check the dictionary.”  Yep, there it was, in black and white.

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What I wouldn’t do for a great story!!

“And without parables (great stories!) Jesus did not teach” (Mark 4:34).

I once sat through a long session of a convention of realtors just to hear a motivational speaker.  The story with which he opened quickly became a mainstay in my arsenal of great illustrations and sermon-helpers.

Time well spent.

I’ve read entire books and come away with one paragraph that became a staple in my preaching thereafter.  It was time well invested and money well spent.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling Eat, Pray, Love (which I do not recommend), attended a party 20 years ago and heard something from a fellow whose name she has long forgotten.  “Sometimes I think this man came into my life for the sole purpose of telling me this story, which has delighted and inspired me ever since.”

That’s how it works.  One story; a whole lifetime of benefit.

Gilbert says the man told of his younger brother who was an aspiring artist.  Living in Paris and struggling to get by, he seized every opportunity to get his name before people.  One day, in a cafe’ some people invited him to a party that weekend at a castle in the Loire Valley.  This was big stuff and he eagerly accepted the opportunity to hobnob with people of wealth and influence.

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Be a teacher. No matter what else you choose to do.

“The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (II Timothy 2:2)

Every teacher who is truly effective became a teacher because of the influence of a highly effective teacher.

You can’t say that about preachers. Preachers are called by God. (Teachers can be also, but it’s not a requirement as it is with preaching.)

Brad Meltzer is a highly successful, best-selling author. In a Parade magazine article, he paid tribute to Sheila Spicer, his ninth grade teacher, who is responsible for making him a writer.

Meltzer writes, “The teacher who changed my life didn’t do it by encouraging her students to stand on their desks, like John Keating in Dead Poets Society.  Or by toting a baseball bat through the halls, like Principal Clark in Lean on Me. She did it in a much simpler way: by telling me I was good at something.”

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Looking back: I wish I had asked for help

And He sent them out two by two.  And He added to the church those who were being saved. It is not good for man to be alone.  And a lot of scriptures like that.

Sometimes when I look back–hey, it’s what you do when you get as many years behind you as some of us have accumulated!–I think of several instances when I suffered or my work was weak because I insisted on being a lone ranger.

People would have been glad to help me. But I didn’t ask.

I’m reading the most amazing book. I Wanted To Write is the autobiography, of a sort, from Pulitzer-Prize winning author Kenneth Roberts. Whom you never heard of.  Pam Stewart of Colorado Springs was visiting with us over the Thanksgiving holidays and introduced me to him.  I am so hooked. (He lived 1885 to 1957.)  The book’s subtitle is: An Intimate, Entertaining Account of How An Author Lives and Works.  Every would-be novelist, of which I’m not one, would benefit from reading it.

When  Roberts was deep in the throes of trying to write his historical novels–not the potboilers, bodice-ripping fake histories, but genuine history with fleshed-out stories of the actual persons–he struggled mightily.  That’s when a friend stepped in.  Novelist Booth Tarkington was some 20 years older than Roberts and a neighbor in Kennebunkport, Maine (later the home of President George Bush the first).  Tarkington would come over and say, “Read me a few chapters of your book.”

Now, what makes that special is that Booth Tarkington, remembered by few today, was as popular as Mark Twain in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. His book The Magnificent Ambersons was made into a movie and is considered one of the best all-time by people who rate these things.  Anyway…

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What you and I do with words

“Take words with you,” said the 8th century prophet Hosea, “and return to the Lord” (Hosea 14:2).

Does the Lord want to hear words?  Evidently.

Words are mighty important.

The Psalmist prayed, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

Before Job’s friends launched into the attack against him, one set him up for the fall.  You used to be something special, said friend Eliphaz.  But look at you now.

Surely you have instructed many, and you have strengthened weak hands.  Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have strengthened the feeble knees. (Job 4:3-4)

Imagine that, having the power to stand someone on their feet by the power of words.

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