The Best Sermon Material

One of the reasons I look forward to breakfasts in hotels is the free copies of USA Today. Okay, it’s not like I couldn’t purchase my own subscription or pick the occasional copy up at the newsstand. But the reality is I don’t do it. So, the only time I read this paper is when I’m out of town.

That means, I’ll be reading it every day for two weeks. One week on a vacation trip with my sons in the Gettysburg PA area, followed by a week in Louisville for the Southern Baptist Convention.

From the standpoint of a minister–and I pastored churches over 40 years and will always think of myself as a pastor–what USA Today does best for me is to provoke my thinking.

This morning, for instance….

–President Obama is staying out of the Iranian election crisis. Anything he says will be used against him by one side or the other. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likewise is saying very little and only positive things, expressing concern and wishing the Iranians well.

Pastors know, or learn the hard way, it is not necessary to take a vocal position on every issue in town. Sometimes you have bigger fish to fry, larger concerns which keep you on course and prevent you from taking every detour that presents itself.

–Article: “Where were the regulators when banks were failing?”

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A Prayer Concerning the Unexpected

Looking back over a long life filled with decades of ministry, I think of the potholes I hit and the chasms I plunged into and wish I had been better fortified for those times.

I wish I had been prepared for the unexpected, those events and situations and people and temptations that lay in wait for me, just around the corner. Poor, unsuspecting me, I rushed headlong into the day without a clue that a bear trap was waiting just ahead.

We’ve all seen it. An accident on the highway brings traffic in the opposite lanes to a standstill. Emergency workers tend to accident victims, law enforcement officers are everywhere protecting the scene, no motorists are going anywhere. Driving past, you see the traffic is backed up for miles. Further along the highway, you come upon drivers who are headed toward that accident scene at 70 and 80 miles per hour. They have no clue what’s just ahead, and you have no way of alerting them. You hope they stop in time and do not create new problems.

Life is a lot like that. An accident lies in wait for you, just ahead. Some church member or an outright enemy is loaded for bear and you are about to stumble upon them. Temptation with your name written all over it lurks in the path you have taken this morning. The company you work for has decided to hand you a pink slip or transfer you to the city of your dreams or the land of your nightmares. A new boss has been hired and he/she has issues with you, even though this morning will be the first time you’ve met.

You whistle as you stride happily down the sidewalk or into the office. Life is good. You are ready for anything this day hands you.

You think.

Trouble ahead. Be prepared.

That’s where prayer does its best work.

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Books I’ll Not Be Giving Away

In recent weeks Lynn Gehrmann, administrative assistant at our associational office, has been keeping a list of every book I’ve pulled off the shelves and laid on the table for pastors to pick over. We’ll figure out some kind of IRS deduction, I hope, and if they audit or ask questions, we’ll need some kind of record as to what those books were.

Better these books were blessing current and future pastors than gathering dust in my garage.

My hunch is the number of books we’ve given is now close to five hundred. That’s not counting those I gave to pastors who happened to be in my office and I said,”Look around. What books would you like to have?”

Five years ago, when I transitioned from pastoring to the associational office, we must have given away two thousand books, including numerous sets of commentaries.

I do love a good book.

Even so, Margaret could not believe the boxes of books we hauled home last week, now occupying precious space in the garage. I told her something similar to what Charles Haddon Spurgeon said to a woman who criticized him for his use of humor from the pulpit. “You’d appreciate it a lot more if you knew how much I controlled.”

There are a couple of shelves in my home office (study, library, whatever) filled with books I’ll not be giving away to anyone. These are the ones that have impacted my life in ways that made the books permanent friends.

Here are a dozen of them. Readers will recognize that I’ve mentioned some of these before.

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Free and Coddled

“So,” they all want to know, “how does it feel being retired?”

I’ve not known how to answer, because I was not actually retired. But yesterday, Monday, I finished moving out the boxes and pictures from the office, turned in my keys and cell phone, and hugged the two women in the office (for the first and only time in my five years there, understand!), and drove away.

Today, I am retired.

And it feels just fine. Free, actually.

I typed that and thought of the “Me and Bobbie McGee” line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Ha. It’s not that bad, not yet.

I feel, well, almost coddled, to tell the truth. Consider for instance that in my most recent trip home to Alabama, one of my sisters made sure that my favorite meals were on the table and the other presented me with shirts she had bought for me. The churches in our association have showered me with gifts which paid for most of the new Camry I’m tooling around town in. And Monday, First Baptist Church-New Orleans pastor David Crosby brought his SUV and hauled the last of my boxes of books to the new office at FBC-Kenner.

The administrator at Kenner teased, “I hope you like your new office. Mary Ellen, the librarian, made sure we painted it. She wanted it to look just right.”

The church office bought a new printer/scanner so I can e-mail cartoons each Monday morning to the Baptist Press. They’ve run a computer line into the library so I can do this blog and work on writing books from that office.

I have no more excuses.

Most of us recall the times we have begged off from some assignment or duty because “I don’t have the time.” No more. Nothing but time.

Well, almost.

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Blessed Frustrations

I don’t handle frustrations well. Case in point:

Not far from my house is a new diner which has received rave reviews from the Times-Picayune. The owner, a master chef from some New Orleans restaurant, knows his business, we read. The other day, when a pastor friend and I agreed to meet for lunch, we decided on that cafe. When he had to cancel at the last minute, I went by myself.

I walked in, saw the place was fairly crowded, and took a stool at the counter. After maybe two or three minutes, I hailed a woman busing tables and asked for a soft drink. She brought it, I studied the menu, and I waited for a waiter or waitress. Ten minutes later, I dropped a couple of bucks on the counter and walked out. With service like that–okay, a lack of service–they’ll not be in business long. If that is indeed indicative of how things are there.

As Yogi Berra said of a certain restaurant, “Nobody goes there any more; it’s too crowded.”

I drove to a coffee shop near our church that caters to a breakfast crowd, knowing I’d be waited on. I was the only customer. The lady behind the counter was also the cook at that hour and gave excellent service. We chatted about restaurants, service in restaurants, the Lord, the church, my pastor (who is a regular here) and such stuff.

Maybe that little appointment was on the Lord’s calendar for me.

Today I ran across this note from ten years ago.

“I’d run into a little restaurant to grab a sandwich. After waiting five minutes without any kind of acknowledgement from a waitress, I quietly got up and left. Down the street a half mile, I pulled into a parking lot and entered a fast food place. The assistant manager was an inactive member of my church and now going through a divorce. She needed her pastor and at that moment, the Lord had sent me in.”

Good timing, Lord.

It’s clear from all this that my impatience with poor service in restaurants is not a new thing. It has at various times, however, been a painful thing.

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The Lord Listens to My Sermons

I had taught a little prayer meeting message based on the passage in John 4 (“being wearied from his journey” — verse 6), using Jesus as an example of:

a) one who tired; He was just like us. b) one who would not use fatigue as an excuse for missing an opportunity to serve; He was teaching us to go against our self-centeredness. c) one who was energized by such labor; He was showing us the fruits of such faithfulness.

Not two minutes after the closing prayer, a young woman walked up with her two small sons. I recognized her as a single mother we had frequently given assistance to in the church office. To the best of my knowledge, she was a hard worker and was trying to get her life together.

“I need to move tonight,” she told me. I said, “How’s that?”

“I’ve rented a better apartment and I’m getting out of that dump. I have three truckloads of stuff to move. If I don’t move it out tonight, I lose my deposit.”

I realized Heaven was sending us a little message of “put up or shut up.” Did I really believe what I had just preached? This was the time of the evening when everyone was ready to go home after a long day and collapse. Was I willing to follow Jesus’ example?

Glancing around the hall, I called to several men. “Don’t you have a pickup truck, Jim?” “Bob, can you give me an hour?” “Mike, I need to see you.”

In five minutes I had recruited 10 of our men to meet me back at the church at 8 pm. “Bring your truck,” I called to several. I asked for one hour of their time. We were going to move this little family from one apartment to another, and it had to be done tonight.

By 10 pm that evening, we had moved the family’s furniture and belongings across town into a new, clean, safe apartment.

And, I was fascinated to notice, I was energized.

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Funny Business

Angus Lind retired the other day from writing a humor column for the Times-Picayune. Here is some good stuff from one of his ancient columns which fell from a file I was clearing out.

These are supposed to have been actual questions asked in court by lawyers. No way to verify whether that’s true or not, but they’re so funny….

The lawyer looks at the witness and says, “So, you were there until the time you left, is that true?”

“Were you alone or by yourself?”

“The youngest son, the 20-year-old, how old is he?”

“Were you present when your picture was taken?”

“Was it you or your brother who was killed in the war?”

“How many times have you committed suicide?”

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Are They Still Debating Worship Music?

If so, I have a contribution. Going through old files and tossing out the accumulated notes of a near-lifetime of ministry, I came across this correspondence from June of 2000.

Jeff and Lisa wrote to me:

“We have enjoyed the fellowship and warm welcome we have received from the church. But, we are concerned about something that it seems is becoming more and more emphasized in the church services. It sets a tone for the rest of the service that dampens our spirit. We find it hard to concentrate on your message, and we both like hearing you preach. We’re talking about the music.”

“We do not think it is right to add a rock beat to hymns written to glorify God. For example, ‘It is Well With My Soul’ was played one Sunday with a rock beat. This was so offensive to us that we did not feel comfortable singing the hymn. We hate not participating during that part of the service but we feel that we are not truly worshiping God. We hope you will prayerfully consider this issue.”

I wrote them back:

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Forgiveness: Shortcut to Healing

I walked into the hospital room just as the doctor was leaving. “He said I could go home,” she beamed. “And just think–after seven months!”

She had entered the hospital on March 6, and today was October 9. Through every day of the Spring, all through the hot Summer, and into the Fall, she had lain in that hospital room as sick as anyone I had ever seen. Even two weeks earlier, I wondered why she didn’t just give up. And here she was leaving.

I pulled up a chair and asked the question on my mind: how did this happen? What made the difference? How had she gotten better so fast?

“It was two things,” she said, and she gave me permission to tell her story. “They found out how to cure my infection and then a man came into my room. He stood right there and told me he sensed that I had a spirit of unforgiveness deep within me.” She smiled at me, then added, “Now, imagine someone coming into your room and telling you you’re carrying a grudge and it’s keeping you ill! But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right.”

And what did you do, I asked.

“I did what James 5:14 tells us to do–I called for the elders of my church and they prayed over me. I confessed my sin and gave it up to the Lord. I started getting better at that moment.”

I thought of two verses of Scripture. “There is no health in my bones because of my sin” (Psalm 38:3). “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).

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My Preaching Schedule (as it stands on June 4, 2009)

I’ll appreciate your prayers for the Lord’s leadership in preparing messages and for His preparation in the hearts and minds of the people who will receive this ministry. Thank you!!

June 7, 2009 — First Baptist, Marrero, LA — installation of Pastor Ronnie McLellan

(June 13-20 Vacation with son Neil. After we drop his twins off at summer camp in Asheville NC, we’re spending the week in Gettysburg PA. Some terrific father/son time while we get our history fix!)

June 21-24 — Southern Baptist Convention, Louisville, KY (I’ll be sketching people at the Baptist Press booth. Come by and bring the kids!)

June 26-28 Children’s Camp for FBC Double Springs, AL at Camp Lee, Anniston, AL Nikki Shipman is the camp director.

July 11 (Saturday) — dedication of Delacroix Hope Baptist Church, St. Bernard, LA. James “Boogie” Melerine, pastor.

July 13-14 — Lifeway “Sunday School Lesson” Conference at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

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