Don’t Look Too Closely

It’s a hard lesson to learn in life, but fans of athletes and singers, actors and other television celebrities, would do well to adjust their expectations downward concerning the personal, private lives of those individuals.

The lives of very few superstars in any category will bear close inspection.

Life keeps trying to teach us this lesson, but so many in our society refuse to learn the lesson. So we are devastated when we learn the inner secrets and hidden activities of a Tiger Woods, a Michael Jackson, or an Edward Kennedy.

The reason we go on getting disappointed in such revelations is that we keep expecting other people to be better than they are.

And perhaps better than we are.

I was 18 years old when this lesson hit me up side the head. As a college freshman in Georgia and more than a little homesick, I was glad when I saw that a certain Southern gospel quartet was coming to nearby Rome for a concert. I had grown up singing their songs and had attended two or three of their programs, so this was like a little touch of home. I knew the personnel of the group and could sing most of their material along with them.

That’s why I decided to do what I did.

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Christmas Disappointments

I was 7 years old the first Christmas present I ever received. That morning, as I opened the package, I already knew: it was broken.

Here’s what happened.

That year, our family had moved from the farming and mining regions of north Alabama into the mountainous coal fields of West Virginia. My dad accompanied a number of our uncles and their friends looking for work, and they all landed jobs in a coal camp just outside Beckley. With a steady paycheck, this year for the first time in my brief life, the six children in our family would receive Christmas presents.

One Saturday early in December, Mom and Dad made the difficult trip into town and returned laden with boxes and bags. They hid everything in a closet and warned us away. “Not until Christmas.”

A few days later, when our parents were out of the house, my older brothers found the stash. “This must be for you,” they said, handing me a box containing a lovely golden tractor. This would be my first brand-new toy ever. It was a magical moment. I examined it lovingly. With a windup key, the track could be made to pull the tractor. I twisted it, and it worked–a few times.

Then it broke. No doubt it was simply shoddy workmanship. But to a 7-year-old, this was major stuff.

I had the sad and difficult task of returning the tractor to the box to be re-hidden in the closet, then awaiting Christmas morning knowing that my present would be a disappointment.

When the morning came, I faked excitement. We never let on to our parents that we had broken into the gifts early or that my tractor would not work.

No doubt I was not the first to be disappointed on Christmas morning.

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Now You Know How a Pastor Feels

If you’ve had the television on at all in the last 24 hours, you’ve heard of the senseless death of Cincinnati Bengal’s football player Chris Henry. Apparently, he and his fiancee, the mother of his three children, were having a Tiger-and-Elin-Woods type spat and he was angry. As she drove away in her pickup truck a few miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina, he jumped in the back.

A motorist called 911 saying, “A black man is in the back of a pickup, beating on the window. It looks like he’s trying to get in. He’s wearing a cast on one arm.”

The next call to the emergency system from a second motorist reported the man lying in the highway, motionless. “It looks like he’s dead.” He was.

The victim of his temper, his uncontrolled rage? It would appear so.

One after another, representatives of the NFL, of the Bengals, and of Chris Henry’s friends, have uttered to the media and the sporting community the same three things: It’s sad, we’re sorry, and he was turning his life around.

Henry is a native of our area. Belle Chasse, just downriver from New Orleans, the location of the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station, is where he grew up and played high school ball. People there remember how “he came from nothing” and quickly found what sports stardom can do for a person. It brings great opportunities and incredible temptations.

We’ve not been told what trouble he got into during his high school or college (at West Virginia) years, but the NFL suspended him several times. He was arrested 5 times in the last 3 years for marijuana possession, driving under the influence, and such. He was only 26 years old.

“He was turning his life around.”


The fact that he died the way he did would seem to indicate otherwise, in my opinion, that he still had uncontrolled anger problems.

But no one wants to say a bad word about the deceased. And that’s just fine. There’s no need; what would be the point?

Now you know how pastors feel at funerals.

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What a Blind Spot Looks Like

Luther Little was a pastor any modern preacher could admire and look up to. I became pastor of the church he served early in the 20th century, some 40 years after he was off the scene. The more I learned about him, the more I admired him.

In the 1920’s, he became the first pastor in America, we’re told, to broadcast his church services over radio. For a time, millions of people up and down the East Coast considered him their radio pastor.

One of the most fascinating aspects to this preacher, the one that stood out and made me realize there was far more to the man than first appeared, is that he was a novelist. I have no idea how many books he wrote, but somewhere along the way–in a used bookstore, I think–I ran across “Manse Dwellers,” his novel about a pastor and his family. Clearly, he was following the number one dictum for novelists: write about what you know.

This is not a review of that book.

Rather, it’s a little story about the realization that the pastor-author was strictly a man of his day with a glaring problem he did not even know about.

Luther Little had a blind spot.

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The Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids

Dr. Helen Falls taught missions at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for a generation. She was a delight in every way. Once she walked into an early morning faculty meeting and was greeted by Professor Tom Delaughter. Making idle conversation, he said, “Helen, got any oil in your lamp?” She quipped, “Certainly. I’m no foolish virgin!”

Those straight-laced professors are still chuckling about that.

We all know this as “The Parable of the Ten Virgins,” but could we update our terminology just a tad. “Virgin” in our society brings up images of an upstart airline, a store that sells CDs and DVDs, and spinsters, those unmarried ladies sometimes referred to as “unplucked blossoms.” None of this conveys what the term meant when the Lord told the story.

These are simply young Hebrew women who are waiting for the groom’s party to arrive so the bridal festivities can get underway. Think of them as bridesmaids. The groom will be bringing his buddies with him–unmarried young men, get it?–and everyone knows that weddings are great places for single young adults to meet other single young adults. A long time before eHarmony came along, this was how they matched up.

They’re waiting for the bridegroom and all those he is bringing with him.

Sound familiar, Christian?

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What I Wish For The Church

A friend handed me a book. “We’re studying this at our church,” he said. I was struck by the incongruity of that, because the title was, “I Love My Church, But–”

He said, “We all have this love/hate relationship with the Lord’s church, don’t we? We love it for a thousand reasons, but hate what it tends to become when we’re not careful or the wrong people sit in the driver’s seat.”

That started me thinking. I do love the church when it’s loving and strong and good, and I hate it when it’s bickering and splintered and selfish.

I love the church when it’s like Jesus and hate it when it’s too much like me.

I love the church when it’s into giving and hate it when it’s all about getting.

I love the church when it’s serving the community and hate it when it’s complaining about its neighbors and throwing its weight around.

I have devoted all my adult life–literally, I was 22 when I began pastoring and will be 70 my next birthday–to serving the Lord’s church. In fact, you could say Jesus and I have in common that we both love the church, for we read that “Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)

I have not “given myself up for her” in the sense the Lord did, of course. I do carry a few scars on my soul from my years of fighting for the church, but they are nothing compared to His sacrifice of love.

I sat down one day and made a list of my wishes for the church. You might be interested in reading it, and perhaps in adding your own items to it. In doing so, let us both remember that the church is the Lord’s however, and what we want more than anything is for His will to be done and not ours.

One: I wish the church were less of a business and more of a family.

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The Parable of the Wedding Banquet: Or “Why They’re Not Flocking to Your Church”

Here’s a question worthy of serious reflection some wintry morning when you’ve thrown a log on the fire and want to do something better than watch a rerun of the worst sitcoms of the 70s:

Ask yourself, “If the Gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news, why aren’t people breaking the door down to get in?”

Images of Target or Macy’s on Black Friday come to mind, with crowds pressing against the door, eager for the management to open up so they can take advantage of the great buys inside.

One would think we would be just that intent on getting in on the blessings of Heaven Christ came to give us.

Instead, for the most part, people stay away in droves.

Why is that?

The angel told the shepherds in Bethlehem’s fields, “I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all people.” (Luke 2)

Christians maintain that this was the best good-news ever delivered, that it was heaven’s greatest gift and humanity’s best night.

It’s for everyone, it’s free, and what it does is transform lives for now and forever. It signs you up for a Heavenly inheritance that cannot be taken away (see I Peter 1:4) and assures you of a future beyond your fondest imagination (I Corinthians 2:9, among other places).

So, why aren’t they packing the pews of your church next Sunday and storming the altars at the invitation time.

We happen to know the answer to that question. Well, much of it. There may be aspects we haven’t found, but there is not a great deal of mystery to this.

One: we who are the “keepers of the flame,” so to speak, the ones entrusted with the message and sent as examples of the divine reality, have so watered it down and messed it up as to make it meaningless.

An article in the December 12, 2009, Times-Picayune, our New Orleans paper, tells of virtual churches existing on-line that offer everything normal churches do without the “member” ever having to walk outside the house. At communion time, the individual can go in the kitchen and find some bread or wine–or even water, the article says–and participate. He can even baptize himself.

Give me a break.

“Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.” (Hebrews 10:25) Any believer with even a few scriptures under his belt can shoot this down in a minute.

Easy believism is rampant. “Pray this prayer and you go to heaven.” It’s all around us. Nothing is said about becoming a disciple of Jesus and living for Him. It’s just “say these magic words.”

A child asked a Sunday School teacher, “Do you think Hitler went to Heaven or hell?” The woman said, “Well, darling, we can only hope that when he was a little boy he prayed to receive Jesus as his Savior.”


No wonder people stay away in droves. I would too. Who wants such a gospel? In fact, why would that even be considered a gospel, offering nothing but pie-in-the-sky by-and-by and no transformation or reconciliation in this life?

That’s the first reason you’ll not find crowds waiting for the custodian to unlock your door this Sunday. The issue has been so confused people today don’t even know what the gospel is.

Here are our other reasons. (You can find most of these in Matthew 22:1-14.

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The Parable of the Non-Unionized Laborers

The title is facetious.

I’m the son (and son-in-law, too, for that matter) of a union man through and through. My dad worked all his adult life as a coal miner and was a confirmed believer in the value of labor unions to protect the rights of “the working man.” After his forced retirement due to disability, he remained active in leading the local union in his hometown of Nauvoo, Alabama, until its declining membership ended its viability.

As a young pastor completely indoctrinated by my father’s philosophy, I can recall reading this parable and almost being offended by it.

In the story Jesus tells, a landowner hires workers for his field throughout the day, even as late as 5 o’clock, and at quitting time pays them all the same wages. His explanation was simply that, “These are the wages you agreed to work for; I have done you no wrong.”

A far better title for this story would be “The Parable of the Generous Landowner.”

There is a large and not-to-be-missed point to this story Jesus told and one that slips past us if we’re not careful.

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Detoxing the Pastor

Over breakfast in a Cracker Barrel a few miles west of Nashville, Frank and I talked about his new job. After a quarter century of pastoring Southern Baptist churches, he has become a chaplain in industry. Recently, he went full-time.

“Basically, we walk the plant and talk to the workers, four or five minutes each. We’re not promoting a church or a denomination, but trying to get to know them.”

“Our object,” he said, “is to gain their confidence by showing them we aren’t selling anything or promoting anyone but Jesus.”

He works with everyone, he says, from Muslims to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Baptists to atheists.

“When we first start inside a plant or company, the workers are suspicious. They think we are a part of management.”

“Gradually, they learn we’re not. In fact, we cannot tell the boss anything they tell us without their permission.”

“Confidentiality is the rule,” Frank said.

You get your chaplains from the pastorate? I asked.

“We do. But first we have to train them, to detox them.”

That’s when I grabbed my notebook–usually along for the ride just so I can sketch someone or jot down a quick cartoon idea–and started writing.

“Tell me what you mean by detoxing the pastor,” I said.

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