Asking For It

Critics say when President George W. Bush appeared on that aircraft carrier with the words “Mission Accomplished” emblazoned across a banner, he was just asking for a continuation of the war in the Middle East. And when he defiantly said to the enemies of the USA, “Bring it on,” that did it.

He came to regret both.

In this morning’s USA Today, the discussion is whether Bobby Bowden should retire from coaching Florida State’s Seminole football team. This year’s record was 5-5, a vast difference from the championship calibre teams he has usually fielded over his 35 seasons at that school. His 387 victories over 44 years of coaching puts him second on the all-time list, behind Penn State’s Joe Paterno, another octogenarian who arguably needs to hang it up.

Bowden is 80 years old. The FSU fans and alums are calling for him to retire. But the decision is not theirs to make, although they can bring incredible pressure on the president of the university and the athletic director who will be making the call one way or the other soon.

What struck me–I’m no FSU fan and have no dog in this fight, but am always interested in the strangeness of human behavior–is the way Bowden is insisting the school is going to have to fire him to get him to leave. No one knows but the coach, but since the university brought in Jimbo Fisher as his assistant a year or two ago with the understanding he would succeed Bowden, guaranteeing him $5 million if he’s not the coach by January 10, 2011, it would appear that Bowden is maneuvering for one more year, after which he would step down.

Here’s what Bowden said, and then a quote from his wife Ann.

“You can figure it out. Here I am, 80 years old and I’m just as excited now as I was 50 years ago as far as going on the field and looking at film and making decisions here in the office.”

“They’ll have to fire him for him not to go another year….If they’ve got guts enough to do it, let them do it.”

That did it for me.

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The Bargain of the Year

One of the online sermon sources is offering a CD containing “30 years of sermons on one disk.”

No thanks. And I wonder who is purchasing these things.

Might as well offer a collection of “what I have said to my wife over 47 years of marriage.” One is as personal as the other.

The sermon I preach today–well, sermons, because I’ll be delivering three–are all things between the Lord and me. Jeremiah 23 warns God’s preachers against getting their sermons from each other.

That’s not to say it can’t do some good to study other people’s sermons. In fact, we can gain a lot from it.

From other people’s sermons, I learn:

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The “John the Baptist” Parable (Matthew 11:16-19)

You have to be pretty special to warrant your own parable. The Lord clearly thought John the Baptist was in a class by himself (see Matthew 11:11,14), and did not mind saying so. When John was beheaded by the tyrant Herod, the Lord seemed to have grieved as much or more than when Lazarus died.

They were as different as they could be, Jesus and His distant cousin John. (Luke 1 simply calls Elizabeth the relative of Mary, so there’s no way of knowing how closely they were related. We get the impression they weren’t close or they would surely have known one another growing up. After all, there was only a few months difference in their ages. When I was growing up on the farm, my cousins who were similar to my age became some of my best friends. Yet, it seems that Jesus and John were strangers when the Lord walked out into the Jordan to be baptized. That’s Matthew 3:13ff)

John was a loner, living in the desert, wearing home-made clothes of camelskins and eating a diet of locusts and wild honey. He must have looked scraggly. When he preached, he spared no one’s feelings. When a delegation of religious leaders showed up to “honor him” by allowing him to baptize them, he rebuked them: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Show some evidence of your repentance, then we’ll talk about baptism!!” (my paraphrase of Matthew 3:7-8).

Jesus, on the other hand, seemed to have been a people-person. He lived in town, wore regular clothes (since no mention is made of his attire and no one called attention to it) and ate normally. When He preached, He too could be pointed and plain-spoken, but not to the extent of John.

In this 11th chapter of Matthew, Jesus is struck by how people not only rejected John for his ascetic ways, but are now rejecting Him for being the opposite.

“When John came, neither eating nor drinking, people said, ‘He’s crazy.’ Then, I came both eating normally and drinking normally and what do they say? ‘He is a glutton and a drunkard! A companion of the worst kind of sinners!'”

The people wanted it both ways.

In truth, they wanted it neither way.

Jesus put it in a form they could understand and would never forget.

“This generation is like children playing in the marketplace.”

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The Parable(s) of Matthew 9

We’ve said before that no one knows exactly how many parables Jesus used. We don’t even know how many we have in the gospels for the simple reason we can’t agree on what a parable actually is.

The stories–a certain man had two sons, that sort of thing–are clear enough and no one argues that they fit the genre. But how about Matthew 9:15-17? Is this a parable? Is it three parables?

Bear in mind that in the famous 15th chapter of Luke where we have Jesus’ parables on the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost boy (i.e., the prodigal son), Luke introduces them with, “Jesus told them this parable.” He says it like all these are just one story.

So, let’s approach the three illustrations of Matthew 9:15-17 as one entity. After all, the Lord gave them all in answer to one question.

When we begin to look at a parable, bear in mind that unless we establish what question the Lord is answering, it will be meaningless.

In this case, there are two questions. There is the question from the disciples of John the Baptist (“why do we have to fast and your disciples do not?”) and there is the broader question behind it, one with meaning for us.

First, the two questions. Then the three answers.

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Six Months on the Road–and What I’ve Learned

Some twenty years ago, when I was between churches for a solid year, I briefly considered becoming a vocational itinerant preacher. In other words, a traveling evangelist.

The idea excited me for a whole day. Then I talked to one.

Jim Ponder of Orlando, Florida–now with the Lord–was a dear friend who was enjoying a lengthy and effective ministry of itinerant evangelism. If anyone could provide the counsel I needed, it would be Jim. I picked up the phone and reached him.

A half hour later, when the conversation ended, I knew the Lord was not calling me in that direction. In fact, anyone who goes into this work and stays with it for any time deserves our greatest respect and support.

Two cautions in particular from Brother Jim have lingered in my mind all these years.

1) Don’t go into evangelism if you cannot handle being away from your family and alone in a distant hotel room night after night after night.

2) Don’t expect to be able to live on the offerings you receive. You will need a strong board of supporters to supplement your income.

From 1990 until 2004, I pastored a Southern Baptist church in metro New Orleans, then served for 5 years as the director of missions–the SBC version of a district superintendent/bishop–for the 100-plus churches in the same area, before retiring on June 1, 2009.

That’s when I hit the road.

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Praying Prayers of Faith

What if you tried this some Sunday soon….

While the pastor is in his Sunday morning prayer or a deacon is invoking the blessings of the Almighty on the offering, interrupt them.

“Pastor.” (Or, “Deacon.”)

“May I interrupt you for a moment?”

This is not normally done, so don’t be surprised if it takes a moment for it to get through to the one praying that he’s being summoned.

“What?” he says. “Shhh. I’m praying.”

“I know you’re praying. That’s what I want to ask you about.”

“You want to ask me about my prayer? Couldn’t this wait until after church?”

“No. It needs to be asked right now, in the middle of your prayer.”

“All right. What is it?”

“I just wanted to know what you think you’re doing. I mean, what is the point of this prayer? Where are you going with this?”

“I beg your pardon.”

“Well, your prayer sort of touches on half the issues in the world and doesn’t really dwell on anything, and I was just wondering. What exactly do you want the Lord to do?”

“What I want Him to do is to bless us, to bless this world. To be with us today, and to make this worship service special.”

“Oh. That’s good. You could have fooled me. I suppose that somewhere in the middle of all those words you were flinging heavenward there was that. But those requests were buried in the wordiness.”

“Uh, friend, are you rebuking me right here in front of the entire church?”

“No, not really. Because you see, I’m not really doing this. I’m just fantasizing about it. This is not really happening, pastor.”

“Well, good. Now, if you will excuse me, I’d like to get back to the morning prayer.”

Now, since we all agree that this scenario is not going to occur, I have an alternate suggestion.

Do it to yourself, to your own prayers. Interrupt yourself. Ask, “Where am I going with this? What am I seeking from the Lord? Or am I just filling the space with religious words, trying to make this worship service impressive to someone other than the Lord?”

We church people have created categories of prayers. We have invocations and benedictions. In between, we have pastoral prayers and offertory prayers. And, in most of our churches, that’s about it.

I have one more suggestion: how about prayers of faith?

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On Your Way Out the Door

Nothing reveals the true character of a person–an employee, a boss, a pastor, a politician–like the way he/she exits a position, particularly when the experience has not been a good one.

In one church I served, they’re still talking about the way a former staff member exited–this was before my time, so I have no personal knowledge of him or the event–with great venom. The church was without a pastor at the time and the staffer had filled the leadership vacuum. When he left to go to another church position, he used his final pulpit time to unload on the leadership.

What causes a person to do that? What good do they think can possibly come from it? Or, at they just venting and trying to unburden themselves of their anger?

We have such a situation plaguing the city of New Orleans now.

We’ve written on these pages over the last three years of the so-called Recovery Czar brought in to organize the city’s rebuilding work after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. His name was (and is) Dr. Ed Blakely. The mayor paid him big bucks, he sported a resume that was the envy of every city planner in America, and he walked in making with the big talk.

He became a laughing stock. An expensive laughing stock.

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Why We Need Parables

Dwight L. Moody used to remind pastors to “put the cookies on the bottom shelf so everyone could reach them.”

What he meant–and what he practiced as well as it could be done–was, “Keep the message simple.” Make it accessible to everyone.

How many times have we sat in a class or church service that was numbing our brain and lulling us to sleep because of its “precept upon precept” style of presentation, when the speaker/preacher said those magic words that jerked us back to life: “Let me tell you a little story….”

We sat up and listened for a dozen reasons. We are built to enjoy a story (which is nothing in the world but a recount of how someone other than ourselves dealt with life; it’s how we learn), we love a good laugh, we devour great insights, and we appreciate the break in the flow of the lesson that day. But what we especially appreciate is that the story may help us grasp the contents of whatever principles the speaker was sharing.

Case in point….

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How Jesus Learned to Love Parables

No one automatically comes into this world with their teaching techniques firmly in hand. We learn them from the people who teach us, we learn them by trial and error, we figure out for ourselves what works best.

Even though the Lord Jesus Christ was Who He was when He arrived–with all that the Incarnation means–we can safely assume that He learned somewhere along the way, growing up in Galilee, the value of a well-placed story.

But more than any other way, the Lord Jesus learned to love parables from Scripture. And by Scripture, we mean the Old Testament, since that was the only sacred text available at that time.

The parable has played a leading role all through the years of God’s dealings with His people.

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Reaching Your Community’s Bill

Previously on these pages, I have told you about Bill, the carpenter who recently was saved and baptized in our church. I can’t get him out of my mind.

Bill had expressed to a fellow carpenter the spiritual hunger in his heart. He had no clue what to do with it. The friend said, “Come go to church with me.” Bill’s reply haunts me to this day: “How do I do that?”

The friend was as incredulous. “You just come. You park your car and walk in the front door and take a seat like you owned the place.”

Bill: “Anyone can just walk in?”

“Yep. Anyone.”

Bill did, heard the gospel preached, and responded enthusiastically.

I keep wondering how many other “Bills” there are out there in my community–and in your neighborhood.

You and I who have been going to church literally all our lives (and some of us several months prior to our births!) had no idea Bill existed. Surely, we thought, everyone in my town knows about our church, knows the gospel of Jesus, knows how to be saved, and knows they would be welcome where I worship.

Evidently, that’s not the case.

I grant you that it staggers our minds that anyone in our society could miss out on the Lord’s message with churches on every block and preachers on every station. But that may be the problem. They’re everywhere, so no one notices them any more.

In the months following Hurricane Katrina several of our New Orleans churches came up with some innovations that could hold the clue to reaching the “Bills” in my community and yours. I wrote something about them in the article dated January 15, 2007, (see the archives on our blog) and today went back and reviewed it for this piece.

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