Faithful All the Way Home

Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)

Yesterday morning, the phone call informed me of the death of Dr. Clarke Bozeman. This good man, nearly 90 years old, a deacon in the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, and a veterinarian in that city for 50 years or more, had been in declining health for some time. His homegoing was not unexpected. The funeral will be a celebration of a life-well lived this Monday.

Two hours later, another call came from the same city (where we served as pastor from 1974-86). J. C. Perkins, longtime member of the First Baptist Church, prominent businessman, husband of Margaret Perkins who has headed the church’s library and media center for a generation or longer, had an accident while working with his boat at the lake. Alone and unable to summon help, he died there.

Two good men, two supportive and loving families. Two lives well-invested in service for God and mankind. A church and city filled with sadness today.

At moments like this, we find comfort in a hundred places: in remembering a thousand events and incidents, in notes and mementoes around the house or in the office, in the hugs and soft words of friends, and in the nearness of those we love most and best.

For disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, nothing comforts like the assurances and promises of God’s word to His children.

Throughout this weekend, those two families will be opening God’s Word from time to time to claim anew His words to those who love Him. Friends who appear only for a few minutes of comfort will whisper scriptures which they have found most assuring.

“Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee the crown of life.”

Tomorrow–Sunday, September 11, 2011–is the tenth anniversary of what shall ever be known in American history simply as Nine-Eleven. Pastors will be sharing their own stories of that fateful day as spiritual applications for their people.

I love to tell of Al Braca. This brother-in-the-Lord has been in Heaven for a decade now, but his example and inspiration linger.

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The Holy Spirit: The Wind of God

It has to be more than a happy accident that in both Hebrew and Greek–the languages our Bible was written in–the same word in each has the same three meanings. That is….

In the Hebrew, ruach means spirit, wind, and breath. The context dictates which word best fits.

In the Greek, pneuma also means spirit, wind, and breath.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, the Wind of God, the very Breath of God.

Here’s a well-loved hymn….

Breathe on me, Breath of God, Fill me with life anew

That I may love what Thou dost love,

And do what Thou wouldst do.

Think of Adam, the newly formed clay figure of Genesis 2:7. The Lord formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.

In this life, I am often breathless. I am winded. I am dispirited.

I get used up so quickly. My natural reserves are so limited.

Life has a way of requiring all there is of us and calling for more. The people around us–even those who love us and whom we treasure–take and take and take, then ask for more. Unless we are constantly being replenished, we soon find ourselves spent and exhausted, with nothing more to offer.

Toward the end of his life, H. G. Wells concluded this was true of mankind as a whole, that we are played out, the world is jaded and without power to recover, and the only philosophy that makes sense is a disinterested cynicism.


But God.

I love that God is the “Great However.” Over and over we read in Scripture of the mess man makes of things, and then we come to those two little words: But God.

Early in Romans, the Apostle Paul chronicles the depths of depravity and rebellion mankind has descended into over the centuries. Then, when it seems that we are utterly destitute and without hope, he writes: But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

Nearly a half-century ago, Scottish pastor extraordinaire James S. Stewart published a book of sermons that went by the title of the first one, “The Wind of the Spirit.” His text for that message was something the Lord said to Nicodemus who was trying to get a handle on the work of God in his day.

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).

Stewart’s outline on that declaration from our Lord has never been surpassed.

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The Hunger to be Clean

Once you have been clean–I mean really clean–you are never satisfied again with anything less.

If anyone cleanses himself….he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work. (II Timothy 2:21).

Recently, at an outdoor event a church was staging for the community, I sat under a covering sketching anyone and everyone, people of all ages. At one point, something offensive hit me. A man with a body odor that indicated he had been weeks away from the bathtub approached to see what I was doing.

Later, I reflected on how rare that is. In the civilized circles I run in, we almost never encounter the unwashed and the odorific.

But we used to. In fact, it’s very possible I used to be among them. After all, I grew up on the farm and getting dirty and taking rare baths were part of the culture. More on that in a minute, however.

Sometimes when I am out west riding with the cowhands, moving a herd to the trailhead or fighting outlaws or just branding the dogies–I read Western novels a lot, in other words–something occurs to me: these people must have been filthy.

You almost never read in a Western novel of the main characters taking baths. If they do at all, it’s usually a swim in a creek or a formal bought-and-paid-for hot bath in town at the end of their journey.

They seem to wear the same clothes day after day and sleep in them at night.

Is it unfair to conclude that these people were dirty most of the time? Not only that, but I think we can assume it wasn’t just the dusty cowhands on the trail, but the townspeople also–the preacher, the schoolteacher, the sheriff, the merchants–who took rare baths.

The obvious question is: Weren’t they repulsed by the (ahem) fragrance the dirty bodies gave off?

Apparently not. When everyone smells the same way, no one notices.

Bill Glass asked a fellow at the Fort Worth stockyards once how he could stand the smell. He said, “What smell?”

We can get accustomed to anything.

Here’s the story of this (now) citified farmboy regarding baths, with a little application to the spiritual.

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How to give your audience something they will always remember

I’ve thought about that conversation ever since.

A friend whom I know only from our internet exchanges wanted to know if in all the articles on my website, there was anything on a text he was researching.

I responded that I could not recall dealing with those verses, but suggested where he might find help. Then, I said, “Are you preaching on that text?”

I had no idea whether he was a pastor or not.

It turned out he was a layman and had been asked to bring a message that Wednesday night to his church. The Lord had laid on his heart a text, and he was trying to find out all he could on it.  Good for him.

Then he said something which has lingered with me ever since: I want to give the people truths from this passage which they will remember the rest of their lives.

Wow. Big assignment he has given himself.

My first thought–which I would not dared have stated, lest it seem I was trying to discourage him–was: “Yeah, me too. Every time I stand to preach, that’s one of my goals.” I suspect his pastor would say the same.

Every preacher loves it when our sermons convey truths which people never forget.

However–and this was my second thought: That’s hard to do.

Church people hear hundreds of messages, lessons, and sermons. They are fed such a relentless stream of revelations, insights, truths, principles, and biblical information in sermons that I suspect very few walk into the sanctuary, take their seats, and look toward the pulpit expecting to hear something life-changing. Most will be satisfied to receive something interesting or thought-provoking.

That said, I come before you this morning to declare that it is indeed possible to deliver a message to your people that will never be forgotten. I might add, with as much humility and gratitude as I can muster on this Wednesday morning, I have done it a few times in nearly a half century of preaching.

Here’s how.

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Why There is a Labor Day Holiday

Some of the special days this country observes have more history attached to them–like the tail of a kite–than others. The birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, is a statement of regret over centuries of persecution and pain inflicted upon his people by those in power in this and other countries.

Labor Day is one such holiday. The existence of this day on the calendar admits that for untold decades and, yes, centuries, that class of humanity we call “working people” were mistreated and dishonored.

…in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

“You’re a preacher. What do you know about work?”

Enough to know how to appreciate those who do it. Enough to appreciate my present retirement. And enough not to respond to that kind of barbed question with the sharp retort it deserves.

Last weekend, preaching in Grace Baptist Church of Palmyra, Illinois, I said to Pastor Jim Allen, “You have something going for you many of us preachers do not. You have logged a full career in farming and the business world. When you speak to your people about integrity in work and sharing faith in the marketplace, they know you know whereof you speak.”

My brief history of (ahem) work looks like this: raised on the Alabama farm with all that that implies, part-time jobs through college in bookstores, print shops, men’s clothing stores, and the railroad terminal, then, for two years after college working in a cast iron pipe plant. When the Lord gave me a pastorate that paid full-time so that I did not need to hold down a job on the side, I was one happy camper. And extremely grateful.

Of course, pastors work, too. Brother, do they ever. But for the most part–if you will allow me–I will say, it’s not the kind of work we are honoring on Labor Day.

On Labor Day, we honor those men and women who go unheralded the rest of the year. Those who make this country go: coal-miners, farmers, sanitation workers, sewer workers, plant and factory employees–well, you get the idea.

Most of what I know about the labor movement in America, I learned from the best teacher imaginable: my father who lived through it. At the age of 12, he dropped out of the 7th grade to begin earning a living. That was 1924. For two years, he carried drinking water to workers at a planer mill for 50 cents a day. At 14, he began working inside the coal mines alongside his father. He would tell me, “I was doing a man’s work for a man’s wages.”

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The Fruit of the Spirit is Self-Control

We all could use a healthy dose of self-control these days. As I was telling my good-for-nothing, money-grabbing, self-indulgent, womanizing, utterly out-of-his mind brother-in-law the other day.

Oh. Excuse me. Sort of got out of control there.

(Apologies to my three brothers-in-law. Just illustrating a point.)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

The Greek word translated “self-control” is enkrateia, and usually refers to mastery over one’s desires and passions. (We pastors throw in the occasional Greek word just so our people will know that we know it. Whether it does any good or turns people off is another question.)

The best picture of self-control any of us will ever see in a lifetime is Olympic athletes. They discipline their bodies, they deny themselves social activities and foods everyone else is enjoying, they rise at unearthly hours and go to bed with the chickens–and they do it for four long years between major competitions–all for the privilege of standing on that world stage for a few moments and competing. The rest of us stand in awe.

Self-control. What a concept.

Self-indulgence–saying “sure, whatever you want” to our passions and hungers, our urges and desires, our impulses and temptations–is more what we are about.

The evidence of a lack of self-control can be seen in a hundred ways everywhere we go: in the overweight people all about us, in the speeders and risk-takers on the interstates, in the daily newspapers’ accounts of fights and shootings, and in the mirror.

The mirror, did you say? Yep. I see it in myself. You too, I’ll bet.

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To Influence Your Generation, Be a Writer

I’m a sucker for a great beginning of a book.

Here is how Kelly Gallagher kicked off his outstanding work Teaching Adolescent Writers:

You’re standing in a large field minding your own business when you hear rumbling sounds in the distance. The sounds begin to intensify, and at first you wonder if it is thunder you hear approaching. Because it’s a beautiful, cloudless day you dismiss this notion. As the rumbling sound grows louder, you begin to see a cloud of dust rising just over the ridge a few yards in front of you. Instantly, you become panicked because at that exact moment it dawns on you that the rumbling you’re hearing is the sound of hundreds of wild bulls stampeding over the ridge. There are hordes of them and they are bearing down right on top of you. They are clearly faster than you and there is no time to escape. What should you do? Survival experts recommend only one of the following actions:

A) Lying down and curling up, covering your head with your arms.

B) Running directly at the bulls, screaming wildly and flailing your arms in an attempt to scare them in another direction

C) Turning and running like heck in the same direction the bulls are running (even though you know you can’t outrun them)

D) Standing completely still; they’ll see you and run around you

E) Screaming bad words at your parents for insisting on a back-to-nature vacation in Wyoming

Gallagher, who teaches high school in Anaheim, California, says experts recommend C. “Your only option is to run alongside the stampede to avoid being trampled.”

Then, being the consummate teacher, he applies the great attention-grabbing beginning: “My students are threatened by a stampede–a literacy stampede.”

He adds, “If students are going to have a fighting chance of running with the bulls, it is obvious that their ability to read and write effectively will play a pivotal role.”

Illinois high school teacher Judy Allen, wife of Pastor Jim Allen of Palmyra, gave me her copy of Gallagher’s book when she saw how fascinated I was with it. I’m grateful.

As the grandfather of eight intelligent, wonderful young people, I am most definitely interested in their being able to “run with the bulls.” But my concern on this blog, as readers have figured out by now, is for pastors and other church leaders who are trying to find their greatest effectiveness.

I hear veteran pastors say, “When I retire, I’m going to go to the mountains (or the beach) and write my memoirs.”

I think, “No, you’re not. If you’re not writing now, you will not suddenly become a writer when you retire.”

Sometime around 1996, our church’s minister of education, Jim Lancaster, installed a computer in my office. He did it without being asked. As he plugged it in, he simply said, “Pastor, you’re going to be needing this.”

He was so right. That small act from a friend changed my life and, if I’m allowed to say, has influenced a lot of the Lord’s people toward greater service. Thank you, Jim. (I am eternally in the debt of this good man who now pastors the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Louisiana.)

Writing is a remarkable thing. Almost magical even.

In a 1994 article in Christianity Today, Philip Yancey notes just how remarkable it is. In a scene from the movie “Black Robe,” a Jesuit missionary tries to persuade a Huron chief to let him teach the tribe to read and write. The chief sees no benefit to this practice of scratching marks on paper until the Jesuit gives him a demonstration. “Tell me something I don’t know,” he says. The chief thinks for a moment and replies, “My woman’s mother died in snow last winter.”

The Jesuit writes a sentence and walks a few yards over to his colleague, who glances at it and then says to the chief, “Your mother-in-law died in a snowstorm?” The chief jumps back in alarm. He has just encountered the magical power of writing, which allows knowledge to be transferred in silence through symbols.

Pastor, let us transfer some knowledge in symbols. And let us get on with it. The stampede is bearing down on both of us.

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