Part IV–The Christian Bucket List

20. Cater lunch for the entire church.

Now, if your name is Clyde Etheridge (a deacon in my church), then you’ll not need to cater it; you can feed everyone yourself. I was in the church office this week when Clyde walked in and asked Julie, my daughter-in-law and the pastor’s administrative assistant, if the bulletin had been done for Sunday. He inserted a note that next Wednesday night’s meal would be a Mexican feast in honor of Cinco de Mayo. He said, “I’ve never done this before, but it might be fun.”

I admire people who can do this. I’m not one of them.

A few weeks ago, as we were completing a five-day meeting at Salem Baptist Church in lovely Brundidge, Alabama, Pastor Bobby Hood informed the congregation that they were all to stay for lunch on Sunday. “Sue and I are providing it for you.” They paid to have it catered for the entire church.

I said, “Bobby, how do you do that?” He smiled, “With a check.”

Smart aleck.

My siblings and I once did it for the entire church back at Nauvoo, Alabama, on the Sunday following our reunion, but I’ve never tried it by myself. An interesting idea.

19. Write down the story of your life.

Continue reading

To The Shepherd of a Stagnant Flock

How many churches have stopped growing in this country, in your denomination, of your church-type, in your county or parish or town? It depends on who you ask.

Go on line and you’ll soon have statistics coming out your ears on this subject.

In our denomination–the Southern Baptist Convention–the most significant number, one that seems to have held steady for over three decades, is that some 70 percent of our churches are either in decline or have plateaued.

Plateau. Funny word to use for a church. One wonders how that came to be. Why didn’t they say “mesa,” “plain,” “delta” (ask anyone who lives in the Mississippi Delta–flat, flat, flat!), or even “flatline.”

Of course, in the emergency room, to “flatline” is to be dead. No one (to my knowledge) is saying a non-growing church is dead, just that some things are not right.

Healthy churches grow. Non-growing churches are not healthy, at least in some significant ways.

If it’s true that 7 out of 10 pastors in our family of churches lead congregations either in decline or in stagnation, this is a situation that ought to be addressed.

To my knowledge, everyone is addressing it. Everyone has an opinion.

My single contribution to this discussion is directed toward the shepherd of a stagnant flock: “If your church has plateaued, make sure you haven’t.”

Continue reading

Part III — The Christian’s Bucket List

30. Make up your own bucket list.

These fifty are only suggestions, some of them mine and some from Facebook friends. Not everything will suit you; find those that do.

A friend who works with the Baptist churches across Montana suggested no one should go to Heaven without first visiting the Big Sky state. I’m not sure everyone will want that on their list, but there it is.

Someone else suggested sky diving and bungee jumping. Not for me, thanks. But you will have your own list.

29. Make a will.

You’d be surprised how few Christians have wills stating what is to be done with all they leave behind after their death. I suspect it’s because we don’t want to think about dying, don’t want to have to arrange to see a lawyer, or think we’re far too young for this sort of thing.

Read the ages in the people across your newspaper’s obituary page today and decide for yourself. I just turned 70 and fully half the people making today’s obits are younger than I am.

In most cases, you simply leave everything to your children to be divided equally. But if they’re small, you’ll still want to name their guardians in case you and your spouse depart simultaneously. And then, the lawyer will think of questions to ask that never occurred to you.

The Baptist Foundation in whatever state convention your church is part of will have a type of kit to assist you in thinking this through. After filling out the information it asks for, you could take that to your lawyer and simplify the process.

28. Wash someone’s feet.

Continue reading

The Two Sides of Death

Maybe we shouldn’t be hating death as much as we used to.

Ever since our Lord Jesus went to the cross and pulled its fangs, descended into grave and recovered the keys, then rose from the tomb as the first fruits of eternal life, the poor ogre has lost his threat.

He still growls but all his rantings are just so much bumping his gums.

Maybe we ought to pity death.

Like a honeybee that has lost its stinger but is still flying around scaring people, death can no longer do any kind of significant damage to all who are in Jesus Christ.

No more fear, Christian. It’s all gone.

“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (I Cor. 15:55)

Hebrews 2:14 puts this in an unforgettable way: “He Himself partook of (flesh and blood) that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to bondage all their lives.”

Defeat the devil, deliver the hostages.

Big task. Great victory. Huge celebration–one that’s still going on.

Thank you, Lord, for that incredible weekend, one that changed life forever on this third rock from the sun.

A few years back, Franklin Graham was speaking to the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis about his wonderful parents. His father, Billy Graham, at home recovering from a couple of major surgeries, was experiencing constant pain. His mother, Ruth Bell Graham, no longer able to walk, was living in a wheelchair. (She has since gone to be with the Lord.)

Franklin said, “The other day, Daddy hobbled into Mother’s bedroom and said, ‘I feel so bad. I feel like the Lord is ready to take me home.’ Mother said, ‘That must feel wonderful.'”

As we laughed, Franklin said, “He won’t get any sympathy from Mother!”

I feel bad enough to die. That’s awful.

When I die, I’m going to Heaven. That’s wonderful.

That’s how it is with believers in this age: “caught betwixt the two,” as Paul expressed it in Philippians 1:23.

Continue reading

Life Expectancy

Today, Sunday, was a day of funerals.

Our family gathered at the family church near Nauvoo, Alabama, and laid to rest my 41-year-old nephew, Russell McKeever, who died last Thursday of pneumonia and heart failure.

Two hours later, the convention center in Beckley, West Virginia, was packed as families and friends of the 29 miners killed in Coalmont, WV three weeks ago gathered for a memorial service. President Obama and Vice-President Biden spoke and did well. The most touching part of the service may have been the president simply reading the names of all 29. Then family members walked by the 29 miners helmets and turned on each of the lamps.

I sat there taking it in, feeling as though I had an apple stuck in my throat.

When a man sang “Go Up High Upon the Mountain,” that did it for me. In 2006, that Vince Gill song played a prominent role at the funeral of my youngest brother, Charlie, the father of Russell. Charlie had for a time been a coal miner, too. When he left the mines, it was to drive trucks on the open highway, an equally hazardous career.

Raleigh County, West Virginia, is where we lived when my dad and all his brothers worked in the mines just a few miles from Coalmont. Dad’s father, George McKeever, and all his brothers were miners too. George died of a heart attack in his mid-40s. All his brothers died too young, including one named Joe McKeever, who barely made it out of his 40s.

Furthermore, all my dad’s brothers with the possible exception of the youngest battled emphysema–black lung–the rest of their days.

When we no longer had a family member inside the mines no one shed a tear. It’s a cruel, scary life. Many a night as a child I lay awake, praying for God to keep my dad safe down inside that mountain.

After working inside the mines for 35 years, Dad took disability when he was 49, then lived into his 96th year. I’ll never quit thanking the Lord for that.

The Coalmont miners ranged in age from young adults to nearing retirement.

Russell hardly made it out of his 30s.

“Life really is fair,” someone said after the unexpected death of his wife. “Sooner or later it breaks the heart of every person.”

Recently, while reading “Appetite for America,” the story of Fred Harvey’s restaurant empire across the southwest in the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century, I was struck by how young these people were when they died.

Continue reading

A Penchant for Embellishment

Now comes word that this generation’s most beloved historian, Stephen Ambrose, made up stuff.

In the April 26, 2010, issue of The New Yorker,” writer Richard Rayner faults Ambrose for making claims that were not so and inventing conversations that never took place.

Evidently, if the sources Rayner quotes are accurate, he can back up what he says. Ambrose, who died in 2002, is not around to defend himself.

Those who love history, and I’m one, and those who love America, I’m among those also, tend to have numerous books on their shelves by Stephen Ambrose, fpr many years professor of history at the University of New Orleans. He directed the Eisenhower Center on the UNO campus. Out of that came the idea of the D-Day Museum which morphed into the National World War II Museum, rapidly becoming one of this area’s greatest draws for tourists.

The interstate between Slidell and the Mississippi Gulf Coast is the Stephen Ambrose Highway. He had a home at Diamondhead, MS.

Clearly, he was highly respected and well-loved around here.

I’ve heard Ambrose tell how he came to write the definitive biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower. He told the story again and again. Quoting from the New Yorker article:

“I was a Civil War historian, and in 1964 I got a telephone call from General Eisenhower, who asked if I would be interested in writing his biography.” That was taken from a 1994 C-Span interview. Later he said, “I thought I had flown to the moon.”

According to Ambrose’s account, Ike had read his biography of Lincoln’s chief of staff, Henry Wager Halleck, and decided he would do a good job on his story.

“I’d walk in to interview him, and his eyes would lock on mine and I would be there for three hours and they never left my eyes. I was teaching at Johns Hopkins and going up two days a week to Gettysburg to work with him in his office.”

The only trouble is it wasn’t that way at all.

Continue reading

Part II — The Christian Bucket List

In looking over the ten items-in-our-bucket so far, it occurs to me that I may be stepping into a little trap here: listing only what I’ve already done. I’ve been to the Holy Land, memorized chapters, that sort of thing. How convenient for me this would be, and how pointless.

So, I promise to try to keep it honest here and speak to myself as well as to the rest of us.

40. Pay off everything and get out of debt.

Is this a “Christian” goal? Or just something that would be good for everyone to do? In Scripture, one reason for believers having money in the first place is so that we may be generous. One of the great hindrances to our generosity is the heavy debt load we stagger under. We’d like to give to help those poor people or to support the missionary, but we don’t have it to give.

If we paid off our debts and did not incur additional financial burdens, think how liberating that would be.

The question is how.

Answer: live simply, get everyone in the household behind this goal, say no to expensive choices such as eating out or purchasing entertainment centers or new cars, and double up on the existing payments. If you have too many credit cards, cut all but one or two up and close the accounts. The way I understand Galatians 5:22-23, discipline or self-control is a part of the fruit of the Spirit. You’ll be needing it to get control of your finances, so it’s good to know the Lord wants to produce it in us.

39. Find your spiritual gift and put it to use.

According to the Bible (Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12), every believer is gifted by the Holy Spirit with a spiritual capability. We can only dream of how effective the Christian community would be if we all claimed our gift and put it to use for the Lord. My hunch is less than one-third of the members of a typical church even make an effort toward this.

Rather than take some kind of printed inventory that purports to tell you what your spiritual gift is, my suggestion is rather that you try a lot of things. To find out if your spiritual gift is teaching, sit in on Bible study classes, then volunteer either to substitute for the teacher or to assist him/her. To find out if your gift is in “helps,” volunteer to assist in some kind of project–a church banquet, a Vacation Bible school, a youth camp–and try your hand at it.

The best way to recruit people to the place where the Lord has prepared them is simply to expose them to various kinds of ministries. Their spirit will respond to the right one.

38. Develop some latent talent such as for music or art.

Often when I’m sketching people, someone will say, “I used to enjoy art. I just got away from it.” I suggest that they get back to it.

When churches began having orchestras in worship services, members remembered their old high school saxophones or clarinets gathering dust in closets. They cleaned them up, began practicing, and now they play in church every Sunday. For some, this has opened up a new world.

I’ve known retirees who began taking piano lessons for the first time. “I’ve always wanted to play,” they would say. They’ll not turn into concert pianists, and that’s not their goal. It’s something for their own growth and fulfillment.

Take a cooking class. Find out when your local plant nursery is having classes on growing roses and sign up. The local art store has postings for new classes all over town, from beginners to intermediate to accomplished. Ask the Red Cross about classes for CPR and lifesaving training.

Continue reading

My Bucket List for Christians: 50 things every believer should do before going to Heaven (Part I)

This has become a popular parlor game and a best-selling theme for all kinds of books–places to go, things to do, foods to eat, scenes to see, before you leave this world, or “kick the bucket.” That’s what gave it the name “bucket list.” Hollywood made a movie about this a few years ago.

Today was evidently a morning of slow news because one of the television shows ran a feature on beer, “50 brews on our bucket list.” “Oh great,” I thought. “Just what some beer-guzzling couch-potato needs, an excuse to indulge himself even more.”

So, let’s try to do the right thing here and come up with some positive, non-alcoholic deeds which every disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ should do before departing this earthly sod.

Everyone will have his/her own list. This is mine, with a little help from some Facebook friends whom I’ve asked for contributions. Since we’re going for 50 things to do, we’ll break this article down into several manageable segments.

Putting them in any kind of order would be impossible since I don’t know what we’ll end up with. So, just because one item is low on the list and another is high says nothing about their relative importance.

You’re invited to click on “comments” at the end and give us items on your bucket list…places to go, experiences to have, things to see or taste or hear, before the Lord sends His angels for you.

50. Visit the Holy Land.

Margaret and I went to Israel once, over 20 years ago, and found it life-changing as well as ministry-altering. Honestly, I probably would not have gone then had it not been a 10th anniversary gift from the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi. For months after returning, I ran a low-grade fever just thinking of where we had been and the sights we had seen. I’d turn a page and there would be a photo of Jerusalem or the Sea of Galille and my eyes would tear up. It had that kind of effect on me.

So, go. Traveling to the Middle East is as safe right now as it has ever been, and you’re not getting any younger. I’m thrilled to see the occasional seminary program that allows young preachers and missionaries to visit Israel as a part of their education. Wish I’d gone when I was 25. But on the other hand, I got far more out of it by going when I was 44. Best solution: go twice.

Oh, and send your preacher. Even if he’s reluctant to go.

49. Win someone to Jesus.

Continue reading

I Prayed For My Preaching–and Got Answers I Didn’t Expect

(This is a reprint of an article I wrote for Leadership magazine several years ago, maybe 2001. It was later picked up and included in “The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching,” edited by Haddon Robinson and Craig Larson, published by Zondervan, 2005. In conversations with pastor friends, I’ve learned that many never saw the article and some have asked where they could get a copy. Please feel free to copy and pass along to other servants of the Lord.)

I had been preaching for more than two decades, and I should have been at the top of my game. The church I served ran up to 1,500 on Sunday mornings, and the live telecast of our services covered a fair portion of several states. Most of my colleagues thought I had it made, and if invitations to speak in other churches were any sign, they thought I could preach.

But I didn’t think that.

My confidence was taking a beating as some of the leaders let me know repeatedly that my pulpit work was not up to their standards. Previous pastors carried the reputation of pulpit masters, something I never claimed for myself. To make matters worse, we had numerous vacancies on staff and my sermon preparation was suffering because of a heavy load of pastoral ministry. But you do what you have to do. Most days, my goal was to keep my head above water. Every day without drowning became a good day.

That’s when I got serious about praying for my preaching. Each night I walked a four-mile route through my neighborhood and talked to the Father. My petitions dealt with the usual stuff–family needs, people I was concerned about, and the church. Gradually, one prayer began to recur in my nightly pleadings.

“Lord,” I prayed, “make me a preacher.” Asking this felt so right I never paused to analyze it. I prayed it again and again, over and over, for weeks.

I was in my fifth pastorate. I owned a couple of seminary degrees. I had read the classics on preaching and attended my share of sermon workshops. I was a veteran. But here I was in my mid-forties, crying out to heaven for help: “Lord, make me a preacher.”

I knew if my preaching improved, if the congregation felt better about the sermons, everything else would benefit. I knew that the sermon is a pastor’s most effective contribution to the spiritual lives of his members. To do well there would ease the pressure in other areas. So I prayed.

Then one night, God answered.

Continue reading

“Hospitality: The Missing Element in Today’s Church”

Recently, as my son Neil and I were returning to New Orleans from visiting my mom in north Alabama, I said, “Let’s try to make church at Eutaw. That’s where Grandpa Henderson grew up.”

We called ahead and found out that their Sunday morning service began at 11 a.m., ideal for us. We walked in at a quarter till, and took our seats.

We had a drive of some 7 hours that day, but I had told Neil, “If anyone other than the pastor invites us to lunch, we’ll say ‘no.’ But if he does, I’d like to do it.”

Anyone who knows me knows my love for pastors. I’m always glad to meet a brother laboring in the Lord’s work.

Not that we knew anyone at that church. But I figured that my son had distant relatives in the congregation, for one thing, and for the other, I know small-town Southern hospitality.

We ate with the pastor that day. Rick Williams assured us his wife had made a great lasagna and salad, and that she and her mother and their adult daughter would not be there, that they were attending some function at a nearby town immediately after church. She had even suggested that he invite us to lunch.

Hospitality. It’s a great concept, particularly if you are away from home and on the road.

In the old days, hospitality was an essential of life. In a time when and in countries where few hotels and restaurants existed, you depended on the kindness of strangers.

Pastor Adrian Rogers was speaking for a week of services in a church I pastored. At one point, he said, “Joe, do you ever get up to Memphis?” I said, “Once in a while.” He said, “Well, my friend, when you come to Memphis, don’t ever worry about a place to stay or a place to eat.”

Long pause.

“We have some of the finest restaurants and hotels you’ve ever seen.”

Great line. Not what I was expecting.

He was just making a funny, but the joke makes a good point: with the hospitality industry (that’s what it’s actually called) occupying such a prominent position in the economic life of this country, we’re no longer dependent on people opening their homes to strangers as in the old days.

That’s good. And yet we’ve lost something.

God said to Israel, “An alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

In the New Testament, the word translated “hospitality” is “philoxenia,” literally “love of strangers.”

Our English word “hospitality” is uncomfortably close to “hospital” for good reason: they go back to the same parent, the Latin “hospitalis,” originally a place of rest and entertainment. Other offspring of this parent are “host,” the one extending this welcome treatment, and “hostage,” which formerly meant entertainment. “Hospice” and “hostels” retain some of the original meaning of the Latin word.

Missionaries tell us the concept of hospitality is alive and well in many countries of the world, and constitutes a vital element in their ministry.

Continue reading