Pastor, Ask Something Great From Us

The reason many of us pastors keep returning to the same few quotes is that they are definitive for us. They so imbed themselves in our consciousness that they manage to define who we are.

Somewhere I read–wish I could remember where–of a friend who accompanied Abraham Lincoln to church. Afterwards, the friend asked how he had liked the sermon. The future president’s answer was something like: “He may be a good man, but he’s not a good preacher. A good preacher would have asked us to do something great, and he didn’t.”

(If I’m able to run down the exact quote, I’ll insert it here.)

Sometimes a preacher needs a comeuppance like that from a layperson–calling us back to reality, insisting we remember our calling, that we not get so caught up in the minutiae of our work that we forget to issue the clarion call to God and righteousness.

It might even be appropriate to call Lincoln not a layperson, since that implies he’s an active member of a church other than the clergy, but an outsider. He never joined a church, claimed to have a deep reverence for God and Scripture, but always seemed to see no personal need for involvement in a local church. So when we analyze a critique of a preacher from him, it’s coming more from the outside than within the body.

But this is not about Lincoln. It’s about his comment, and his excellent statement that a good preacher calls on people to do great things.

I completely agree, and am betting most pastors would also.

Now, my opinion is that the typical pastor does not call on people to do little things in place of “great” ones. That’s not what Lincoln heard, I’m guessing. The pastor did not issue an invitation for people to sign up for janitorial work, volunteer to teach the 3rd grade boys, or bring casseroles on Wednesday nights.

Instead of being that specific, that detailed, and that minor, the preacher did something else.

He issued a broad invitation to do general things without ever making himself clear on what they ought to be doing.

One of the cardinal sins of sermons is to issue fuzzy calls for people to do nebulous things.

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My Second-Best Story of All Time

I bemoan the death of mail-out church bulletins. The internet–and maybe the busy lives of church members–was the culprit.

Years ago, we preachers would receive as many as thirty or more bulletins from other churches every week in the mail. A secretary in each church was assigned to type up the congregational news, pastoral announcements, and such and put in the mail, usually by Wednesday or Thursday, with the assurance it would be in the mailboxes of the members no later than Saturday.

Most of us received only the mailouts from churches and pastors we knew well, or admired greatly and wanted to keep up with. A few I took because the minister or secretary (or both) could be counted on for a great story.

Back then, that was a great source of sermon illustrations. Some of us loaded our file cabinets with clippings from church bulletins.

That’s where this one came from. I read it, loved it, clipped it out (alas, without the identifying information to say which church ran it), and have used it again and again over the years.

It’s as powerful a metaphor for the state of many churches and millions of Christians as I’ve ever seen.

The date is Saturday night, December 6, 1941, the eve of “a date that will live in infamy.”

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The Best Article Ever

“The Commission” magazine exists now only on-line but for many generations it arrived in the homes and churches of Southern Baptists all over the country. I’ve known and appreciated several of its editors and grieved when it went out of business. (It was the monthly publication of the SBC Foreign Mission Board, headquartered in Richmond.)

Two things in “The Commission” when it was a print magazine changed my life forever. They were so tiny, I’m confident that the people who dropped them in had no idea how significant they were.

The first was a tiny notice in the fall of 1976 announcing that a cartoonist was needed by the missionaries in Singapore. As a part of their urban strategy, they wanted to produce an evangelistic comic book and distribute to teens all over that island nation.

They needed someone to draw it.

I read that in my office and thought, “I could do that.” The phone rang. Margaret was calling from home. “Did you see this little note in ‘The Commission’ that they need a cartoonist to draw a comic book in Singapore? You could do this.”

That’s how it happened that in May of 1977 I traveled to Singapore and spent two weeks with missionaries Bob and Marge Wakefield. The urban strategists who had conceived the idea–Ralph and Ruthie Neighbour–had returned to Houston, but they continued working with us on this.

I worked with the Singaporean believers on developing a workable script and sketched people and places all over the city. Then, returning to my pastorate in Mississippi, I set about drawing the full-length comic book. Ralph Neighbour got the drawings transferred to acetate cels, which we–my family, my church members, my neighbors!–worked at coloring BY HAND over the next few weeks. We did it in precisely the same way the Disney studios do their hand-drawn cartoons such as “The Princess and the Frog.” We found out it was a job!

That’s one thing so fascinating about visiting the Disney display in the New Orleans Museum of Art (the exhibit runs through March 14, 2010). Here are all these cels on view that were so gorgeously done, and I know exactly how they got that way. Except in our case, we did about 30 or 40 pages (I forget the exact number) and the Disney folks turned out something like 80,000 for a full-length cartoon movie.

My church members kicked in the money to print that comic in full color and it was shipped to Singapore. Ten thousand copies. Some were sold on newsstands for only the amount needed to give the seller a profit and the others were distributed by the churches. I kept out enough to give one each to our helpers and contributors and my children. (I have one copy left, plus the acetate cels, stowed away in a drawer or box somewhere.)

That was memorable and life-changing for me–I hope it was for some Singaporeans, but we’ll have to wait for Heaven to find out–and it began with a tiny announcement in our missions magazine.

The other thing “The Commission” did that made a lasting difference for me was a small news item which I clipped out and have used in sermon after semon ever since.

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Kept for Something Special (I Peter 1:5)

“…who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” (I Peter 1:5)

Exactly five years ago, my oncologist put me on a program to radiate my head and neck areas. A few weeks earlier, in December of 2004, the surgeon had removed cancerous tissue from under my tongue and had ordered the radiation. When I asked why, since he assured me he’d gotten all the cancer, he said, “Because the processes that gave you cancer in the first place are still at work. We want to shut them down.”

The oncologist–the cancer doctor–informed me that he spent many hours programming the computer so that certain areas would be lasered with pin-point accuracy. In former days, radiation was widely broadcast and killed every thing in its path. These days, with computers, they try to avoid taste buds and saliva glands as much as possible.

The ENT doctor had prepared me for the change. “Food will never again taste as good to you as it does right now.” He was right about that.

In the weeks of preparation and then through the months of daily radiation, I found myself praying something extremely biblical: that the Lord would be my shield.

I began reading the Psalms and highlighting every mention of the Lord as our shield. I wondered if the exact number of mentions would correspond to the number of treatments ordered. At this distance, I do not recall how many times the Psalms call God our Shield, but the numbers were not the same.

“Lord,” I prayed again and again, “be my Shield. Protect me from this radiation. Let it do what it’s supposed to do and nothing else.”

As far as we can tell five years later, the Lord answered that prayer magnificently. I’m still cancer free and have most of my taste and a good portion of my saliva. Some foods have little taste, but most do just fine, and my mouth is often dry. So I’m rarely without my water bottle, especially when preaching.

Most translations of this verse make the Greek word “phrourein” out to mean “protect” or “keep.” It’s a military term, we’re told, similar to being “garrisoned” or “guarded by a great power.”

The NIV says we are “shielded.” I like that. It’s good to be shielded.

During the Reagan presidency, there was talk of the United States constructing some kind of giant shield-in-the-sky to protect us from nuclear weapons from various enemies. The impracticality of that ended the discussion, but there’s no question that we need a shield. The only question is what kind and where do we find it.

“The Lord is my strength and my shield.” (Ps. 28:7)

“The Lord God is a sun and a shield; the Lord gives grace and glory. No good thing does He withhold from him who walks uprightly.” (Ps. 84:11)

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The Reservoir of Your Creativity

The number of really creative people is far lower than it should be.

Not that there is a line drawn somewhere to say who is and who is not creative. Such a dividing line would be subjective and blurred. I suspect that creativity is like art: I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.

I’ve been accused of creativity.

Maybe it has something to do with being a cartoonist. You see things a little differently. Or, if the left brain/right brain scenario is correct, it could be that right-brainers (the artsy people) are naturally more creative. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg, the brain-half dominance or the interests and skill?

My strong conviction is that since every pastor is expected to be a leader–it goes with the territory–in the same way, the shepherd of the Lord’s flock should also be creative in the way he thinks, leads, and speaks.

If the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of believers is likened to new wine that is never static, but always expanding, growing, and changing, and if the wineskin is required to be flexible and pliable in order to contain that new wine, then an important requirement is that the Lord’s people should be flexible and adaptable and creative.

A church that is wed to the status quo is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.

The question then is: whence cometh creativity?

The good news is: there is an answer to that.

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My Take on “The Shack”

Everyone I know has read the William Paul Young book, “The Shack.” Everyone except me.

Why I didn’t get around to reading it over the last couple of years as it zoomed to the top of the best-selling list and stayed there, I don’t know. I observed that no one was neutral about it, some cursing it and warning everyone off and others testifying to how it changed everything about the way they think of God.

That’s pretty powerful stuff. Wouldn’t mind writing a book that would do that, myself.

I confess that the only reason I read the book this weekend is that my niece Lisa McKeever Hollingsworth asked me to and to tell her what I think. She had wept through it and said that nothing has affected her the way this book did.

I bought it at the local used paperback book store. The sticker on it reads “$9.00 cash.”

It was a fast read. It’s well written. Mr. Young clearly has written before and has a knack for expression. A knack for the shack? Sorry.

The good thing about penning one’s thoughts on a blog is that he can always re-enter the website and tweak what he has written. I expect I’ll be doing that since I have so many currents running through my mind on this little book, and doubtless I’ll forget to jot some of those thoughts down.

It hits me that writing a review of a book long after it has run its course is par for me. The only time I saw the movie “Gone With the Wind” was 30 years after its debut. It came to the theaters in Greenville, Mississippi, where I was pastoring my first church following seminary, and so affected me that I sat down at the typewriter and put on paper all the thoughts rushing through my mind. What I did with it in those pre-blog days, I have no memory.

As I sit at the computer, the clock in the lower right corner identifies the time as 3:02 a.m.

I had planned to sleep last night and did for some four hours. At 2 a.m., I awakened and made the customary journey to the smallest room in the house which people my age take in the middle of nights. I took a couple of pills I always take at that time, and then, wide awake, went to my drawing table and worked on six cartoons for a pastor friend in Michigan who asked me to illustrate a mission lesson he is doing.

And I decided to get back into bed and read the last 25 pages of “The Shack.” Those who have read it will vouch for that being a climactic part of the plot. When I laid the book down, far from being ready for bed, I knew I’d have to write down all those emotions and thoughts fighting in my brain for expression.

So, here goes.

Dear Lisa.

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What Ethical Looks Like

The talk in my city concerns the surprising resignation of the area’s most successful politician, Aaron Broussard.

Here is a man who has made a career of local politics, beginning at the age of 25 when he was elected to the Jefferson Parish School Board. He was re-elected two years later. In 1977, he won a special election for a seat on the parish council, and a full term two years later.

In 1982, he became mayor of Kenner. I came as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Kenner in 1990 and Mr. Broussard was in church to welcome me my first Sunday. An ardent Roman Catholic, he often prefaces his talks to religious groups with, “I am a born again Christian. I accepted Jesus Christ as my Saviour at age (whatever).”

He was re-elected mayor in ’88 and ’92, then in 1995 became chairman of the Jefferson Parish Council and was re-elected in 1999. In 2003, he succeeded to his final position, parish president.

This word of explanation: Jefferson is the most populated parish in Louisiana. Its affairs are run by the parish council. The chairman presides over the council, but its president runs the day-to-day operations.

By all reports, Aaron Broussard is a good man. He’s certainly a smooth operator, never meets a stranger, and seems to live to make the parish a better place to live.

The one major blip on his career–other than the last few weeks–came when he evacuated the pump operators from the parish as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the coast in August of 2005. Consequently, some neighborhoods were flooded. Broussard became Public Enemy Number One for residents who paid the price for his bad decision. A recall petition was begun, but never got the required signatures to bring it to a vote. When Broussard built safe houses for pump operators for future hurricanes, the furor died down. He was re-elected in 2007, although a couple of unknown challengers almost did him in.

Tim Whitmer has been the chief administrative officer for the parish for years. He served under Broussard’s predecessor and Aaron kept him on. Everyone admits that Broussard is not a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy, but Whitmer is.

And therein lay the origins of the problem. No one was watching Whitmer.

On the side, Tim Whitmer formed a company he called Lagniappe, Inc., an insurance brokerage firm, to serve as a go-between for customers and insurance agencies. It helps customers find the right insurance company and oversees the policies.

Now, Whitmer was pulling down almost $200,000 a year in his job as CAO for the parish, which for most of us would be plenty. But, for those who love money, no amount is ever enough.

Soon Whitmer began working deals with other parishes to throw their insurance requirements his way. He suggested insurance companies to local government officials, and earned hefty fees from those companies.

Now it comes to light that in his capacity as a lawyer, Broussard handled some legal work for Lagniappe and was paid for it.

The feds are investigating Whitmer and he has been forced to resign. Interestingly, had he remained on the job until February 1, he could have drawn a pension of $172,000 for the rest of his life, even though he’s only 49 years old. Nice work if you can get it.

Resigning early, as he was forced to do, means he’ll not be able to draw that pension for another five years. So it cost him dearly in one way. In another way, he may be going to prison, so it may cost him far more dearly.

For the longest, Broussard defended Whitmer and refused to fire him until the pressure became unbearable. The public attended every parish council meeting, clamoring for Aaron to do his duty and fire the guy.

And now one more financial revelation about Broussard has been turned up.

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Our Angry God

The January 9, 2010, edition of The Times-Picayune gives the sad tale of an emergency room doctor–of all people–who let his road rage get the best of him. He’s going to prison for five years because of his lack of self-control.

Christopher Thompson of Los Angeles, age 60, was convicted in November for assault with a deadly weapon (his car), battery with serious bodily injury, reckless driving, and mayhem. What he did was to throw on his brakes suddenly, causing the bicyclists to slam into his car. One came through the rear window. Both were injured.

What led up to that moment we’re not told. But we can imagine.

If the cyclists were anything like those around this city, they were not obeying the traffic laws. I would wager not one biker in a dozen in any city in America knows that they are required to obey the same laws as automobiles, stop at the same stop signs, stay in the same lanes, give the same signals, etc.

It can be infuriating watching them dart in and out of traffic, scooting around cars in a line, speeding through four-way stops. Motorbikes and motorcycles are worse, of course, because they are bigger and faster.

You can get angry. But you cannot get even.

Road rage is a condition we experience when other drivers blatantly ignore written or unwritten laws of respect and safety on the highways.

It’s a rare driver who has not experienced that sensation. You’re tooling along the highway, it’s a lovely day, you’re feeling good, and suddenly out of the blue a speedster appears out of nowhere and fills up your rear view mirror.

He flashes his lights for you to move over, practically paints himself onto your back bumper, and endangers everyone in your car and his. Your first impulse is to stay right where you are, to slow down even, and to guarantee that this guy is never going to pass your car in this lifetime.

Not good. Let him by. He’s an accident looking for someone to happen to. Don’t let it be you.

Anger is a normal reaction of the human mind when we are crossed, offended, endangered, or hurt. Everyone gets angry now and then.

Even God.

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Kept By the Power of the Lord (I Peter 1:4ff)

Call her a “kept woman” and you’ll be in big trouble.

The term implies that some rich guy is paying big for the favor of that woman’s company, covering her rent, maybe lavishing gifts upon her.

In the early verses of this First Epistle of Peter, the apostle twice speaks of that which is “kept” by the Almighty.

“…an inheritance….kept in Heaven for you who through faith are kept by God’s power….” (I Peter 1:4-5)

Our inheritance is kept for us in Heaven. We the Lord’s disciples are kept by Him on earth.

Financial advisor Suze Orman in a radio commercial counsels people not to withdraw their money from the bank and hide it in a mattress as one person told her they were doing. “Put it in a bank where the F.D.I.C. guarantees your deposits up to a certain amount,” she urges.

We want our money to be “kept” for us and available when we need it. We recall Jesus saying, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven….” (Matthew 6:19-20)

Many a bank, when advertising its services, will emphasize the word “security.” For good reason, it turns out, since the economy of any country is so iffy.

This week, President Obama has had sitdown meetings with officials in his administration whose agencies are charged with keeping the traveling public safe. This resulted from a Christmas Day incident in which a Nigerian man tried to set off an explosive in a plane beginning its descent into Detroit. From all reports, the proper authorities knew of this man and should have banned him from travel to this country. Either they did not communicate this to one another or simply were derelict in their duties, but the president is determined that the agencies will do their jobs.

Safety is a big issue and always has been.

At the moment, I’m reading a popular novel in which a vacationing family has their small daughter abducted from under their noses. The law enforcement authorities inform the parents that the kidnaper is a serial murderer and that they should accept that the worst has happened. The father is tortured by thoughts that he should have protected his child and did not.

Your inheritance is protected in Heaven.

You are protected on earth.

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Three Causes, Three Results (I Peter 1:3-4)

Every once in a while, we’ll hear someone say that such-and-such is the most important doctrine in the Bible or the most important event in biblical history. “Because,” they’ll say, “if that had not happened, everything would have stopped at that point.”

We can say that about Jesus’ Incarnation, His Virgin Birth, His sinless life, His death on the cross, and His resurrection. Each one is a vital aspect of God’s plan for redeeming this runaway planet. But to say that one is more important than the other is like choosing one link of a chain as superior to the others.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy, has begotten us again to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, that fadeth not away, reserved in Heaven for you….”

That’s how I memorized these two verses a generation ago. Here is how the NIV says it:

“Praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you.”

One more? Here’s Eugene Peterson’s take on the same two verses:

“What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life, and have everything to live for, including a future in Heaven–and the future starts now!” (The Message)

Okay, first a brief analysis of the contents of these two verses, then the celebration of them.

Peter begins by blessing God. He should, and so should we. It all begins in the heart of the Father, everything you and I appreciate about being disciples of Jesus.

1. God is its Source.

2. Mercy is its Cause.

3. The resurrection of Jesus is its culmination.

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