It’s Such a Little Thing

A pastor in Haiti tells about a fellow he knew who wanted to sell his house for $2,000. In time, he found a buyer, but the man could scrape together only half the asking price. The owner agreed to sell for that amount but with one reservation: he would continue to own one nail above the front door.

A couple of years later, the first fellow decided he wanted to repurchase the house. The new owner declined, saying, “I like this house; I don’t want to sell.”

The previous owner found the carcass of a dead dog on the street and hung it from the nail he still owned above the front door. Soon the stench became so strong no one could go in or out of the house, and the family had to leave. They sold the house to the former owner.

The Haitian pastor said, “If we leave the devil with even one small peg in our life, he will return to hang his rotting garbage on it, making our lives unfit for Christ’s habitation.”

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Purging the Membership Rolls? — Part II

Over the last year, few things in this blog have drawn such attention and comments as the article earlier this week titled “Shall We Purge the Church Membership Rolls?”

Everyone has an opinion. That’s good.

Not everyone agrees. That can be good, too.

Nothing we said should be interpreted to imply I’m against a church cleaning up and making current the membership rolls to reflect those who are part of that family. If people have moved away and cannot be located after a period of time, we do not want to drop them altogether but to simply transfer their information into an inactive file.

However, as one of our friends put it, the object of “church discipline” should be to restore a sinner. When the church’s efforts work toward that aim, no reasonably minded person should fault that.

The problem comes when a church decides to go through the membership rolls with a scythe (chain saw?), clearing out all those who do not measure up to someone’s concept of what a member of that congregation should look like. The only two outcomes of that are to wound good people and to guarantee that the outcast never again darkens the door of a Christian church.

Someone says, “The object is to have a regenerate membership.” Sounds good. After all, who doesn’t want that?

My limited experience says that many people promoting “a regenerate membership” are convinced the big problem in the church today is that vast numbers of church members have never been saved.

Could be. Unable to look inside the hearts and souls of others, I have no way of knowing.

But neither does anyone else.

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Twelve Things

12. Ever wonder what makes a person blog? I think I know.

Nothing makes me feel better than a friend saying something I wrote in an article was used of God to touch his life or to encourage him. One said today, referring to the words of Job 4:4, “Your words really did stand me on my feet.” That’s as good as it gets.

However, I confess to you that at no time do I ever sit at this computer and begin a blog with, “What can I say to help someone?” Rather, it’s all about what’s going on down inside me, what have I been struggling with, what is eating at me.

The blogger blogs for himself. (That is to say, something is inside and he has to get it out.) When it helps someone else, that is lagniappe.

11. Have you ever decided you would register to leave comments on a website–particularly for an online news media outlet–and found that there are too many hurdles, and that their machine keeps kicking your registration back asking you to fill in information you’ve already filled in three times? Happened to me today. I finally got enough and clicked off.

Makes me wonder how all those extremists (that would appear to sum up most of the commenters on those things) managed to negotiate those hurdles when a normal person like myself (ahem) can’t figure out how to do it.

10. More scandals in New Orleans. A number of members of the New Orleans Saints football team, including Coach Sean Payton, invested big money in a startup movie studio that was to be built here. Turns out the guy in charge was mainly looking out for himself. says tonight that fellow used the first half-mil of their investments to pay off a court judgment against him for failing to follow through on a similar plan from a couple of years back.

And now–you’ll love this part–the fellow says he plans to pay off all the Saints just as soon as he lines up more investors. Oh yes, that’s one scheme I want to get in on! I look for that guy to go to jail.

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Shall We Purge the Church Membership?

A pastor called me recently. “I have a fellow in my church who wants to exclude every member who belongs to such-and-such a lodge. What do you think?”

I don’t think much of the idea, I told him.

I know someone else who wants to kick out of the church everyone who takes the occasional beer or glass of wine. Another feels that way toward those who attend movies or dance or smoke. If you’ve had an abortion, heaven help you, you’re out. In fact, if you have committed a sin–the bad kinds, of course, which are on some Pharisees’ list of no-nos–you will not be allowed to remain in their church.

If you start kicking people out of your church because of sins and failures in their lives, I have a few questions:

–where do you start?

–where do you end?

–who’s going to decide?

–how are you going to do it?

–and maybe most of all, how are you going to get anything else done in the Kingdom for spending all your time protecting the purity of your church membership rolls?

“If the Lord should count iniquities, who would stand?” (Psalm 130:3)

Nothing speaks to me on this subject stronger than the second parable of Matthew 13, the one we call “The Parable of the Tares.”

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The Best Thing You’ll Ever Do For Yourself

I saw Jeff Ingram yesterday morning. We were both away from home and overnighting at the Hampton Inn, it turned out, in Ruston, Louisiana. I had spoken at a local church the night before and he had led a conference for Sunday School directors at an associational meeting held in a neighboring community.

He said, “I had 14 directors in my conference. It was great.”

I have never worked for Jeff’s employer–the Louisiana Baptist Convention headquarters in Alexandria, Louisiana–but I know what he is experiencing.

Without asking him or any of his colleagues, I can tell you the high point of his day.

Jeff is sitting in his office and the phone rings. A pastor or church staffer or lay leader from somewhere across this state is on the line.

“I need help,” he says. Jeff’s heart races. “Great,” he thinks to himself. “Someone needs me.”

What he says is, “Well, I’ll be happy to do anything for you I can.”

If it turns out that the caller has a problem of untrained leaders or an anemic organization that needs a shot in the arm or his Sunday School is in disarray and he is desperate for assistance, all the juices start flowing in Jeff Ingram’s veins.

This is great.

This is what a denominational worker lives for. (He even uses the Esther verse of himself: “I’ve come to the kingdom for such a time as this.”)

This is why he’s there.

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Courtesans in the Pulpit

In the mid-1990s, the United States Ambassador to France was Pamela Churchill Harriman, an appointee of Bill Clinton. On February 5, 1996, she died. The burial she received was, you will understand the expression, fit for a queen.

She was anything but a queen. Pamela Churchill Harriman was a courtesan, plain and simple.

Webster: “Courtesan: a prostitute; esp. one whose associates are wealthy, aristocratic, or of the nobility.”

A high class prostitute.

Bear with me; I’m going somewhere with this story. (If anyone ever publishes these blogs of mine, the title will probably be: “Bear with me; I’m going somewhere with this.”)

As a resident of this world since 1940 and a history student all my life, I knew who this woman was. She was born into an English family in 1920, the kind of family with an impressive title–her father was Baron Digby–but little money or power. Someone remarked, “Pamela was not born rich, but she was born to be rich.”

At the age of 20–the year I was born–she married the only son of Winston Churchill, Randolph, a weak man given to temper tantrums, self-indulgence, and strong drink. Later that year she gave birth to the prime minister’s namesake, Winston S. Churchill II. The marriage ended within a couple of years, and Pamela was off on her new career, that of courtesan to the high and the mighty.

The Churchill name opened doors for her.

She married twice more, to Broadway producer Leland Hayward and Averell Harriman, a wealthy businessman and political figure who served as ambassador to several countries.

“Reflected Glory” is the biography of Pamela Churchill Harriman. The author is Sally Bedell Smith. I stumbled across the used book recently, the selling price was next to nothing, and so I bought it.

I’m halfway through and probably won’t finish it.

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Reading the Constitution, the Bible, and Pastors

Jeffrey Toobin is a law professor, a consultant for various news media, and the occasional columnist for The New Yorker. In the July 27, 2009, issue of that magazine he helped me understand something that has puzzled me about Supreme Court justices as they approach the U. S. Constitution.

Toobin is talking about the questioning of Judge Sonia Sotomayor by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the last few days. I watched snippets of it, enough to see she didn’t say a whole lot. But that’s the plan, these days, if you’ve kept up with how these things work. Anything controversial like abortion or same-sex marriages, you just say, “Senator, since there are cases involving that subject before the High Court at the present time, I’m unable to answer your question.”

Anyway, back to Toobin.

Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Sotomayor said, “In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy.”

“Simple,” she said. “Fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make law–it is to apply the law.”

Sounds good, right? But it’s too good, says Toobin. “Coming from a jurist of such distinction, this was a disappointing answer.”

And why is that?

“…it suggested that the job of a Supreme Court Justice is merely to identify the correct precedents, apply them rigorously, and thus render appropriate decisions.”

“In fact,” Toobin goes on, “Justices have a great deal of discretion–in which cases they take, in the results they reach, in the opinions they write.”

Then, here is the clincher: “When it comes to interpreting the Constitution–in deciding, say, whether a university admissions office may consider an applicant’s race–there is, frankly, no such thing as ‘law.'”

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Read Me; Read You

A few years ago, a certain televangelist was “outed” by a network news team. All those letters which he promised viewers he would pray over, interceding with the Almighty for the healing requests they contained, were ending up in dumpsters without having been read. Someone slit the envelopes open to remove money or checks, then sent them on their way into oblivion.

The nation–religious and irreligious alike–correctly called this shameful and almost immediately put that preacher out of business.

Contrast the callous attitude of that preacher toward his correspondents with the graciousness and openness of C. S. Lewis.

Among the numerous C. S. Lewis books on my shelves is one titled “Letters To An American Lady.” For over 10 years, Lewis carried on a correspondence with this woman–known to readers only as “Mary”–whom he never met. He had no idea these letters would ever be published. They were published in 1967, four years after Lewis’ death.

Clyde S. Kilby, a Lewis scholar (who incidentally used to worship with us at the First Baptist Church of Columbus, MS, while I was pastor there, during his visits South to see relatives) from Wheaton College, wrote in the introduction to that book that the reason for publishing the letters was “they stand as a fascinating and moving testimony to the remarkable humanity and the even more remarkable Christianity of C. S. Lewis.”

To the modern reader,someone who knows him only through Narnia or a couple of his other books, these letters provide wonderful glimpses of the humanity of the man and his keen insight into matters of God and man.

But what strikes me about them even more is that Lewis took the time to continue this correspondence with someone he never met and to do so for so long. There are over 100 of his letters in the book. (But none of Mary’s. I assume that was because she kept his letters but he did not keep hers.)

Do the famous write letters to their fans today? Why did Lewis write these letters and hundreds more of a similar character?

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Clippings from My Journal

Carl Sandburg said, “There is an eagle inside me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus inside me that wants to wallow in the mud.”

We all get to choose–have to choose!–every day of our lives which it shall be.

Chuck Colson once asked a prisoner on death row if he wanted a television in his cell. “No,” he said. “TV wastes too much time.”

We get to choose–have to choose!–what to do with our time each day.

Thomas Merton said, “There were only a few shepherds at the first Bethlehem. The ox and the ass understood more of the first Christmas than the high priests in Jerusalem. And it is the same today.”

We choose what to do with Jesus.

Someone called our church office the other day inquiring if non-members were allowed to use the sanctuary for weddings. The secretary informed her that the answer was “no.” A few minutes later, the woman called back. This time she wanted to know if the pastor could marry her and her fiance over the phone.

Some people just don’t get it. And others who don’t want to work at their marriage try to “phone it in.”

Speaking of those who don’t get it, Walter Moore is still shaking his head. A student came into his office complaining about his parents. They were controlling his life, making him go to school, telling him what time he had to be in, that sort of thing. He had had taken about all he could stand and had come to a decision.

“What are you going to do?” asked Walter.

“I’m going to run away and join the Army.”

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