Men Are The Way They Are And That’s Not All Bad

Jane Tompkins and I have one thing in common: we both love westerns. What we do not share is her fanatical dedication to the genre. I read a Louis L’Amour to relax my mind and refresh my spirit; Tompkins is a professor at Duke University who studies L’Amour and Zane Grey and Elmore Leonard to find trends and deeper meanings in their writings. That’s what brought her to write “West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns.” She watches “High Noon” and “Shane” for hours on end, searching out what these popular films tell about the characters they portray and the culture of modern life they produced.

At its heart, a Western is “antilanguage,” Tompkins writes. “Doing, not talking, is what it values.” The men who make up the old west’s heroes do not have vast vocabularies purchased by costly degrees. They don’t read all that many books. The men in these stories speak sparely: “Turn the wagon. Tie ’em up short. Get up on the seat.” (Red River) “Take my horse. Good swimmer. Get it done, boy.” (Rio Grande)

That may tell us something about Westerns, but for my money, it tells us a lot more about men. At the core of his being, a man trusts action rather than words. In fact, he is suspicious of a man whose livelihood is about words. That’s why preachers and politicians get short shrift in men’s stories. Which is fine with me, because even Scripture warns, “My little children, let us not love in words or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (I John 3:18) When you get a free hour, count the times in the Gospels where our Lord urges “doing” the will of God. That’s as opposed to talking about it, approving it, reading, hearing, thinking, reflecting, liking. “Just do it” was biblical long before it became commercial.

“Last summer my wife and I met a couple at a restaurant. After an enjoyable lunch, the women decided to go shopping, and I invited the man to go sailing. Later, while we were out on the water, a storm blew up. The tide had gone out, and we were downwind trying to work our way back through a narrow channel. At one point the boat grounded and we had to climb overboard and shove with all our might to get it back in deeper water. As my new friend stood there, ankle deep in muck, the wind blowing his hair wildly, rain streaming down his face, he grinned at me, and with unmistakable sincerity said, ‘Sure beats shopping!'” (From the Reader’s Digest, quoted by Jane Tompkins in “West of Everything.”)

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Every Family Has Its Unique Weirdness, This Is Ours

Our family gathered last Saturday at a restaurant at the edge of Birmingham to celebrate our oldest brother Ron’s 70th birthday. As special as that was, it was made more wonderful by the fact that our parents attended. Mom and Dad are now 89 and 93 and working on their 72nd year of marriage. Their other five children–Glenn, Patricia, Joe, Carolyn, and Charlie–made them promise not to show partiality, that, since you attended Ron’s 70th birthday party, you have to do it for the rest of us. Mom said this might have to be a “one for all” type thing.

To those who asked, somewhat facetiously I expect, whether Mom and Dad gave the birthday boy his birthday money, the answer is yes. Although they long since graduated beyond the dollar-per-year category. It’s been a hundred dollars per birthday for some time now. With six children, that’s not an insignificant thing. They have however quit putting money under our pillows when we lose a tooth. Some of my siblings have gone the dentures route, and Dad says it could break the bank overnight.

Among the presents we all brought Ronnie were bananas. I brought three, my sisters brought at least a dozen each. Ronnie needs lots of bananas. Here’s the tale.

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The Most Loved People In This Country?

After seeing the movie “The Great Raid,” a portrayal of the greatest rescue in World War II, I dug the book on which it was based out of a bookshelf and read it. “Ghost Soldiers” tells the story of 121 hand-selected U.S. troops slipping behind Japanese lines in the Philippines to march 30 rugged miles and bring out 513 American POWs, many of them dying in the primitive conditions of a camp that made some of Hitler’s prisons seem like resorts.

I had not read a dozen pages when something not in the movie jumped out at me. The leader of the raid, Colonel Henry Mucci assembled C Company, his Rangers who had been trained for just such a mission. Mucci told them the nature of this raid, stressing the risks and the hardships. Then he said, “I only want men who feel lucky.” Well, all of them felt lucky. No one dropped out.

“One other thing,” Mucci said. “There’ll be no atheists on this trip.” On adjourning, the colonel commanded each man to meet with the chaplains and pray on their knees. Services would begin in half an hour. “I want you to swear an oath before God,” he said, ” Swear that you will die fighting rather than let any harm come to those prisoners.” Then they all went to church.

No atheists on this trip. As I say, not in the movie.

My friend David is a Baptist pastor who hails from a large family of believers and with more than its share of preachers. However, he told his congregation recently, an uncle and one cousin work in the scientific field and wear their atheism like a badge. “The rest of the family treats them like lepers,” he said, “but I decided a long time ago I would not judge them, but just love them.”

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How To Encourage An Encourager

Someone from Williams Boulevard Baptist Church in Kenner called the other day and asked me to speak to their men’s breakfast next Sunday morning on “how to encourage a pastor.” I like that assignment. I believe in affirming these men who are called of God to do the most exciting, most difficult work on the planet.

A few years ago when Mike Miller of Lifeway wrote a book on “Honoring the Ministry,” my church fed steaks to 125 pastors and deacons from all over New Orleans and we brought in someone to teach that book. Encouraging pastors is a longtime passion of mine.

Now, I’ve noticed something. When the Lord knows what I’m going to be speaking on the following Sunday, He likes to help me get ready. (Ahem.) That’s why He sent Charlie and Karen Tackett to the church where I was speaking last Sunday.

The pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Metairie, Scott Smith, was on vacation with his family, seeing our nation’s capital for the first time, and I was filling in for him. Someone approached me just before the service and said, “We have some missionaries here today. Could we give them a few minutes in the service?” You bet.

Charlie Tackett told the congregation, “My wife and I are missionaries to pastors. We go all over this nation, seeking out pastors especially of smaller churches. Some of them feel isolated and lonely and they have no one to talk to. When you have a problem, you call a pastor. Who does he call? Some would say, ‘He calls God.’ Well, that’s right, but sometimes a pastor would like to have a sit-down with a human being. That’s when we show up. We take the pastor and his wife to a nice restaurant, and we listen to their concerns and love them and pray for them. Our whole lives are devoted to encouraging pastors.”

All of which raises a good question: how would you go about encouraging a minister and his wife? I know lots of ways that people have used with us over the years, some better than others.

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Getting Homesick For A Place I’ve Never Seen

I don’t think of myself as overly sentimental, but twice in three days, I’ve found myself almost in tears. The strange thing is what set it off in each case was the simplest of comments.

The first was the other morning when the Space Shuttle Discovery landed. I was watching on television alongwith a nervous nation, and we heard the NASA announcer talk the plane in to Edwards Air Force Base in California. “Discovery is at 5,000 feet….5 miles out….3,000 feet….landing gear is locked…”

Then as the shuttle touched down on the runway, the announcer said, “It’s on the ground…Discovery is home.” That’s what did it for me. I teared up, noticed a lump in my throat, and came close to losing it. “Discovery is home.” It had been a tense week from the oft-delayed launch to the scary space walks to repair the tiles, and there had been a question whether the Columbia disaster of two and a half years ago would be repeated. Our neighbors who work at the Michoud Facility east of New Orleans, builders of the booster rockets, were especially biting their nails. Now, the shuttle was home.

A couple of days later, I saw the World War II movie, “The Great Raid.” A true account of the rescue of over 500 Americans held in a Japanese POW camp deep inside the Philippines, the movie depicted the harsh conditions inside the facility and the barbarous ways of the captors. Then, as the Rangers storm the death camp, taking out over 500 of the enemy while losing only two of their own, they arrived inside the barracks where the weakest of the prisoners lay on cots. Some pulled back in fear as though facing the enemy, while others stared, unable to comprehend. A ranger said, “It’s all right now. We’ve come for you. We’re going home.”

And that’s what did it for me. “We’re going home.” Those men had walked the Bataan death march early in 1942 and had seen hundreds, even thousands, of their buddies die along the way, one corpse for every 20 yards, according to one historian. For the duration of the war, they had barely existed in the Japanese camps. And now they were going home.

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There’s More In Scripture Than We Ever Imagined

The worst advice I ever received as a pastor came at the front end. It’s so obviously wrong it makes me wonder if I heard the man right. It was November of 1962 and I sat in the chapel of our home church, West End Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama. Pastor Bill Burkett had assembled a council of neighborhood pastors and a couple of denominational leaders to question me and then make a recommendation concerning my ordination to the ministry. The men were giving advice on how to succeed in the ministry when one of them fixed himself firmly in my memory with this strange counsel.

“Joe, study hard until you are forty years old. After that, lay your books aside and just preach out of the overflow.” If the others in the room found anything bizarre in that counsel, they didn’t say. A buddy of many years once heard me tell this and asked the obvious question: “What overflow!?”

I’m sixty-five now and still studying. When I left the pastorate last year and became director of missions for the 135 churches and missions that make up the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, I joking said to a friend with the same job in another part of our state, “Since I’ll be preaching in a different church every Sunday, I suppose one sermon will last me two or three months.” He said, “Two or three years!!” We laughed.

I try not to do that, to preach the same sermon every Sunday in different churches. Since the Heavenly Father knows precisely who will be present and what their needs are, the right thing is to ask Him what He would have me preach. So far, it seems to have worked out.

Which leads me to this.

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The Pastor Got This Anonymous Letter

I’ve learned to be leary of anonymous letters. In fact, when I was pastoring, we devised a strategy to minimize the impact of such orphaned missiles. If the letter had no return address, I handed it to my secretary who opened it and looked for the closing signature. If there was none, the letter was torn up and discarded without either of us reading it.

So how this letter got through our lines of defense, I’ll never know. It’s dated March 17, 2003, which figures out to almost exactly one year before I resigned that pastorate to move across New Orleans into the Director of Missions office for the Baptist Association.

It’s actually a good letter. I had kept it and ran across it today while clearing out some old files. Here are some excerpts.

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If You Can Read This, Thank A Teacher

My granddaughter says she would like to become a schoolteacher. Why? “I love to teach,” she says. With two younger sisters, she gets lots of practice.

That’s great, and it’s probably the fundamental reason anyone goes into teaching. However, I wrote back to Leah with a list of 10 additional considerations she should take into account before deciding on the teaching profession. You will think of additional matters and as always, we invite you to leave your comments and suggestions at the end of this article. Leah reads it each week (she’s almost 16 now) and will appreciate your input.

1. Do you love people? Here and there on this planet you will encounter people who love to teach science or math or history, but they do not love to teach people. Remember, it’s not lessons we are teaching. It’s people.

2. Do you enjoy learning? Good teachers devote themselves to a lifetime of learning. Without that, they fossilize. The old joke goes that a teacher claimed to have twenty years of teaching experience and someone replied, “No, you have one year of teaching, twenty times.” The only way to stay fresh in the ministry or in the classroom is to be continually growing and studying and learning.

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Windows And Mirrors

Warren Wiersbe, the pre-eminent Bible teacher, says when you first start studying Scripture, you’re looking into a window. You see how people lived in biblical times, what the prophets did and said, what Jesus said, and how the people behaved. Eventually, Dr. Wiersbe says, stay with the Scripture and in time you see that it’s more than a window; it’s a mirror, through which you see yourself and your world.

Joe Joslin and I were serving on staff together at the First Baptist Church of Charlotte a few years back, and had run into the Smokies to spend the night with a group from our church who were on a weeklong retreat. The next morning as we headed back south, we ran by the town of East Flat Rock to see Carl Sandburg’s home. Called Connemara, this lovely home is open to tourists year round and is well worth the visit. In front of the home lies a picturesque lake with a small bridge on which one can walk across. Joe and I were standing on that bridge gazing down into the water.

It was a gorgeous August day, with the sky a deep Carolina blue and the clouds so radiant they almost seemed radioactive. As we stood there drinking it in, the reflection of the sky on the water was so brilliant, I said to Joe, “Isn’t that amazing?” He said, “Yeah, and I’ll bet some of those babies would dress out at 3 pounds.”

I said, “What?” What in the world was he talking about? Then I saw what he saw–down in the water was a world of fish, large and impressive. Joslin is the fisherman, you might have guessed, and not me.

Joe was looking through the window of that lake, beholding all it contained. I saw the lake as a mirror, reflecting the world above. Two ways of looking at the same thing.

This is a plea for not rushing through Scripture, but staying with a passage and reflecting on it again and again until you see things you did not know were there. It’s how the Holy Spirit seems to prefer to teach, through marinating and not microwaving, as the old line goes.

Case in point.

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