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Friday, January 15, 2016

On Transitions

I have neglected my blog for quite awhile now.  I have been keeping up with two places--my 22 year career as full time faculty at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is coming to an end and my new career as a full time pastor at Dunwoody Baptist Church is beginning.  It has been all I do in the past year to keep up with both places.

I have finished the good-byes and the see you laters at the seminary--though I will stay connected through a part-time status--and it was more emotional than I predicted.  I have a great team there. The best of leadership is that your team is strong where you are weak, and that has so been the case. Much of me has been invested in the work of the Youth Ministry Institute (YMI) which is the youth ministry training and equipping arm of the seminary.  In my transition from leadership there, I feel a little like a person who has sold a house to a new owner, yet wants to tell him how to maintain the yard.  I know that whatever legacy I leave is just that--what I leave.  I trust that God will take my "baby" in the direction He wants it to go.

Humans don't like change, but I want to be an Abraham who is obedient to travel to a place yet to be known, yet to be predicted, not even close to being scripted.

I want to be Job--calling upon God (though grudgingly at first) in whatever circumstances come.

I want to be Daniel, Esther, Peter--trusting God for the absurd.

I want to be Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, knowing that Jesus is present in the fire.

I want to be a father in Mark 9 who cries out to Jesus to "help me in my unbelief."

I don't have it figured out as to what it means to be a pastor. I have discovered in my character flaw of acting first and thinking later ("ready, fire, aim") that my humility and wisdom need developing. I have discovered that the first chair is very different from the second chair, where I have sat for the entire 35 years of my ministry. I have felt a renewed love and admiration for my bride of 32 years who trusts me and trusts God to stay by my side in this transition.

I am thankful to serve a church that believes that my clay feet are ok for walking through this season with them. I am grateful for men and women who have faithfully served this great church both on stage and behind the scenes for the fifty years of its existence. I am strengthened by the members of the search team, leadership team, deacons and staff who continue to declare, "whatever it takes."

I am amazed that even through the painful journey of their beloved pastor's final years, they still have an expectation that Jesus desires people to be saved and discipled, that worship can be vibrant and deep, that missions start where they are and extend around the world.  I would ask you to pray for me for wisdom, humility, inspiration, and sermon material...Sundays are relentless for pastors.

Stay tuned.

Monday, September 1, 2014

On Mack Hannah and Providence

I was privileged to preach at Dunwoody Baptist Church, pinch hitting for Mack Hannah who is courageously battling liver cancer.  Mack's instructions to the church, via his son David--"Each time you pray for me, pray that a person you know who is not a follower of Christ will become one."  I preached from Psalm 121 and while sitting in a McDonald's drinking coffee and finishing up the sermon, I wrote this poem to close.

Where Do You Go?

Where do you look when things go awry?
When the bad diagnosis brings a tear to your eye?
When your kids won't behave and your marriage is rocky?
When your standard response is "I guess I'm not lucky"?

When your focus is blurred and your vision is cloudy
When your confidence is shaken and filled with self doubt
When the goal of the day is to take one more step
When the waters you're swimming have way too much depth.

When your faith is in crisis and God seems far away
When the words from your friends seem forced and cliche
When the Bible is cryptic and the praise songs are hollow
When you lay down your head to sleep through the sorrow.

It is a mistake to believe God is one among many
     of solutions giving comfort and presence to any
     of the problems you carry which trouble and drain
He is all strong and all comfort and all hearing to pain

It is a mistake to believe that God has forgotten
     the big things and small things which weigh down your thoughts
     the stories and crises which keep you from sleep
He too is awake as His love is that deep.

It is a mistake to think that He can't understand
     the pain, grief and loss that are common to man
His standard of care is the gift of His son
To demonstrate the absolute victory won.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

On Mom and Math

My Mom is an amazing woman.  She has been my Mom for all of my 56+ years and is also the Mom to my 2 sisters and 1 brother.  I suppose you can now count Abby as her child–Abby is a miniature dog of some breed that Mom inherited when one of her best friends passed away.  Abby is the miniature child Mom never had.

In a random stream of consciousness, I am thinking of my Mom, “by the numbers.”  October will mark 59 years since she married my Dad and November will mark 14 years that he has been gone.  She had children living at home either constantly or intermittently for 35 years.  She has 4 children, 8 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. There was a decade between birthing her first and last child.

She made dozens of dresses, slacks, curtains and dance costumes with her own hands and on a sewing machine that I almost ruined in an unfortunate incident that involved bubble gum placed strategically in the machinery (it looked kind of cool when the needle thingy stretched the gum out and back).  She made seat covers for the cars, seat covers for the dining room chairs, accessories for the pop-up campers that we had.  She would have recovered the pool table if we didn’t finally give it away to someone. She did make a cover for a bird cage inhabited by a noisy parakeet.

She grew bushels of fresh vegetables in our yard to give to 4 kids who hated vegetables. On waffle day, she made them by the dozens. On hamburger day, she made extra for the neighborhood kids.  She made her own popsicles, ice cubes made of Kool-Aid and her beer-battered fried chicken would get everyone down the stairs or down the hall.  She was Pinterest before Pinterest.

She made thousands of sandwiches.  I think there was only one year that all four of us were in school at the same time (not counting college), but I somehow remember four lunches being assembled, usually the night before because that WAS the school lunch program.  She would freeze the Chek cola and wrap it in aluminum foil. No thermoses for the Jackson 4.

She gave millions of hugs, applied ten thousand band-aids and rubbed close to a ton of Vick’s Vapo Rub on congested chests.  We used whatever the 60's version of neosporin by the bucket and there is an urban legend that Mom was capable of setting broken arms or putting in a couple of stitches as needed.

She ran a thousand loads of laundry every year, bought 5 gallons of milk every week, kept multiple jars of peanut butter in the pantry and I imagine that she followed another famous person in recorded history in multiplying the loaves of bread. We ate cereal by the pallet load.

She drove two cars in all the time that I was at home, both station wagons made by Rambler (AMC).  Four kids learned to drive in the 1970 model.  Those station wagons rolled to hundreds of practices–baseball, band, football, basketball, cheerleading, plays, and spelling bees.

She had a quiet faith and a soft voice that would sing hymns over us. She read, laughed, and loved. She allowed us to learn from our mistakes even though she could have rescued us.  She has an infectious laugh and a twinkle in her now 8 decade old eyes that light up a room when she is in it.  She is an idealistic realist: “Allen, I kept all of the ribbons and trophies that you earned or won growing up.  Now you are a grown man and I need you to get them out of my house.”

Mom is a Proverbs 31 woman in every way. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you.

Monday, March 31, 2014

On Civility

I am not happy with having to write this blog.  God is beating me up pretty good about a character flaw of mine.  I hate injustice.  I don't like it when the playing field isn't fair or when "who you know is more important than what you know" or when the Golden Rule is really "the one with the gold makes the rules."

Then my pastor preaches a brilliant sermon on dealing with injustice. You can find it here www.fbno.org/sermon. Pastor talked about the injustice in the world and the emotions of being the victim of injustice. He left us with some insightful questions: Will I still love God when I am the victim of injustice? Will I love my neighbor when they are wronged? Will I still follow Jesus or will my discipleship waver?

This hit me like a brick in the head because my inner four-year old screams "that's not fair" on a pretty regular basis. The gut check for me comes when I have to test whether it is injustice or whether I didn't get my way. The ones who scream the loudest about inequality are those who are "less equal" than others. I pray that in cases where I am "more equal" than others that I am still concerned about those who have less power, less status, less influence, or less resources.

Then I was watching an ESPN interview with a panel of basketball officials regarding the way coaches and players treat the referees these days. Commentary was also provided about the way the fans treat the players and coaches and referees as if the purchase of a ticket allows immature and even offensive behavior. They remarked that there appears to be a "loss of civility" within college basketball. It was an excellent piece, though slanted towards a favorable view of the officials. I couldn't find a link to it, but in my search I came across an article that ESPN senior writer Tim Keown wrote in 2004. Find it here: http://espn.go.com/page2/s/keown/040127.html . The sad part is that over the last 10 years, it has gotten worse. My search

God has allowed me to have a pretty raw month of delayed flights, purchases that were "not exactly as advertised," un-kept promises by people I trusted, and even some youth minister/church brokering that didn't turn out as planned.  I found myself becoming cynical and wanting to write letters and tweet complaints, because in today's culture a letter of complaint gets thrown away but a tweet gets a response.  My wise and wonderful bride suggested that I go ahead and write them, and then to delete or destroy. Good advice.

Because when I see my words in print, I realize I failed the civility test. 

So I apologize. I have asked and been forgiven for my pride and presumptuous attitude. I need to breathe--to write the letters and compose the tweets and then to stare at them and realize the lack of civility that my wording represents.I need to realize that something in print has no nuance--it is often a raw representation of a sinful human emotion.

I can still voice concerns. I can still cry "not fair" to my God and Comforter. I just need to realize that the referee is a husband or father or grandfather. The salesman is human with the dignity that God built into him.  The call center operator may have an accent, but she is trying to make a living just like I am. The customer care department at the airline is not trying to make my travel unreasonable and I have to consider that the voice on the other end could have drama going on at home or at best is towards the end of a really long day.

The real golden rule comes from various renderings of Matthew 7:12. Jesus is speaking when He says, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. May I add, "treat another persons' husband, wife, daughter, mother, son the way you would want your own loved ones to be treated? 

Pray for me. I am a work in progress. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On the Strength of Fellowship

I am sitting in a room with about 70 or so youth ministers from all over the state of Mississippi.  I am struck by the "safeness" of this place.  The Old Testament describes "cities of refuge" where a criminal could be protected against vengeance. While I hope that most of these guys do not need a city of refuge in the OT sense, it still seems like a place where persons can vent, weep, pray, eat and fellowship.

I won't go into the illustrations about the roots of redwood trees or that a "cord of three is not easily broken" but the results of true community across youth ministry and youth ministers is evident. We gather for Bible study, worship, a little teaching--and then the real fellowship begins.

I am struck by the tyranny of "the next thing."  I don't want to be in a conversation with a youth minister and be looking over his shoulder for the next conversation. I repent from being in a dialog with youth ministers face to face and thinking about lunch plans or golf plans or other plans. 

God, help us all to be in the moment when we have the treasure of face to face conversation. Help me to trust that You will take care of the "next thing" so that I can give and receive the blessing of fellowship in the now.

Friday, September 6, 2013

On Cape Fear and Comparison

I was at home grabbing a peanut butter sandwich today and I got caught up in a culture moment. On one channel was the movie Cape Fear from 1962 starring Gregory Peck as Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady.  Cady is an ex-convict who is seeking revenge on the lawyer who sent him to jail.  Cady is psychotic–illiterate when he goes to prison but learns to read and becomes familiar with the law.  The 1991 version, was directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis. Ironically, it also features cameos from Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum (Peck is a policeman and Mitchum is Cady’s lawyer).

I found a blog by Juan Ramos at http://amateurfilmstudies.blogspot.com/2010/09/cape-fear-1962-1991.html that talks about both films. His thoughts on the original were astute (emphasis mine):

There are almost thirty years between the release of the original Cape Fear and its remake: the first film was released in 1962 and the second in 1991. Although, some details are different, the plot is essentially the same: an ex-convict seeks revenge from the man who sent him to jail. In the original Gregory Peck plays lawyer Sam Bowden, a man who would go to almost any length to defend his family. I say ‘almost’ because, in the end, he does not kill the man who has been harassing him and his family, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), but, instead, sends him back to jail. Cady’s veiled threats to rape Bowden’s teenage daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) make the film at times, and even today, very uncomfortable to watch.

Though I had seen both of the versions before, I had never had the ability to switch back and forth.  It was a bit like a time warp.  The older film was shot in black and white to make it feel like an Alfred Hitchcock production. The newer film was shot in color and was much more violent.  In the 1962 version, the word ‘rape’ was removed from the script but the film was still rated as suitable only for adults.

Ramos commented on the remake:

In the remake, the members of the Bowden family are more coloured. Sam is played by Nick Nolte as rather edgy, and his chain-smoking wife, Leigh, is played by Jessica Lange. The couple are shown arguing and Sam, over all, comes across as temperamental, if not violent, a far cry from Peck’s portrayal. Their daughter, who is called Danielle in this version, and played by Juliette Lewis, is also very different from the Nancy of the original film. In the 1991 version, she actually meets Cady (Robert De Niro) and shares with him an overlong and ambiguous seduction scene at her high school, culminating in a kiss. While that scene is very uncomfortable to watch, I find its counterpart in the original far scarier: when Nancy sees Cady outside her school, as she is waiting for her mother, she panics and, after trying to hide in the school, gets startled by a janitor and runs back outside and is hit by a car.

I am intrigued by the repositioning of the moral compass.  An article entitled, "Cape Fear: Two Versions and Two Visions Separated by Thirty Years,” was written Gerald J.Thain and published in the Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 28, No. 1, Law and Film (Mar., 2001), pp. 40-4. His chief observation was the decreased perception of virtue of attorneys.  Ramos commented on the “progress” of the plot from a clear contrast between good and evil to a less definitive separation.

In the remake, apart from the gratuitous violence, the postmodern conflict set up by the plot twist makes the viewer choose between bad and baddest. The members of the remade Bowden family are all sketchy enough to summon some sympathy for Cady. The suggestion that evidence was withheld makes the viewer “understand” the motives behind his rage but his over-the-top anger issues prevent complete emotional bonding (hopefully at least with most folks).

We are all tempted to judge the rightness or wrongness of our thoughts, attitudes or actions on the basis of comparison to another human.  Paul made sure that we compared ourselves not to each other but to the standard of holiness described in Scripture:

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, "there is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God;… (Romans 3:9-11).

In the most famous of all self-examination, Paul goes on to say in Romans 7 that:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (v.14-15).

Thankfully, Paul concludes this section by reminding me that though the standard of holiness and purity is unwavering–sin results in spiritual death–the death of Jesus on the cross made a way for me to be declared righteous even though I have been judged as sinful:

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (v.21-25)

Our culture, and perhaps especially the media wants us to believe that everyone has evil in them (Paul would agree) and that the way to sleep at night is to see yourself as less evil than someone else (Paul would not agree).  I find the greatest comfort in a passage sandwiched between the two chapters mentioned previously. In Romans 5, Paul gives the declaration that allows me to sleep at night:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (v.6-8).

While I was a sinner. Not a sinner compared to someone else, but a sinner compared to God’s standard of holiness, yet a loving, merciful God loved me enough to come to earth as a man and die for the sins of humanity. I needed to stop for just a moment and marvel at the very thought of grace.

Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Even Cape Fear.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On Jesus, Justice, and the Garden of Gethsemane

I have studied the Gospel of John for most of the summer. For the most part, my summer preaching came from one or more passages. I am winding the study down and one of the books I have enjoyed is Earl Palmer's "The Intimate Gospel." I read today of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where Judas betrayed, Peter had anger issues, Mark left naked and pretty much everything else was chaos--except for Jesus.

Ironically, as I write today, I have jury duty in Orleans Parish Criminal Court. Today, I will see persons who have been arrested and who will hear their future from a jury, perhaps one of which I am a member. Palmer describes the scene better than I ever could:

The temple guards have come to arrest Jesus with the approval of the Pharisees. Jesus accepts the arrest. Each Gospel makes that fact clear, and John adds the comment concerning Jesus' inner feelings. Jesus rejects the sword of Peter as a defense of his honor. He will take care of his own honor.

Peter's act is an act of panic--a sudden flash of impulsive desperation. Throughout the history of Christendom, when Christians have reached for the sword to defend the honor of Christ, the result has dishonored the gospel.

But there is a deeper theological reality present here. Jesus and he alone is to be the world's Savior. The disciples are not able nor are they permitted by Jesus to intervene. . . Jesus has shown to history a new authority and power. He neither evades his captors nor destroys their meager authority of swords and lanterns and accusers. Jesus Christ will prove his kinship in the very midst of the Thursday-Friday intriques that have snared him.

I am a bit wired for justice. I think things should be fair with equal opportunity for everyone who is willing to work. I struggle greatly when powerful people abuse that power whether in government, academia, church or even circles of teenaged friendships.

When I wrap my mind around the identity of Jesus the Justice Giver, I get as excited as the first-century Jews who were sure that Jesus would eradicate Roman control and return the power to them. I want Jesus to make things fair, right, just and equal. But as he demonstrated in the garden, justice will come in his time, his way, and with his finality.

Lord, grant me Your perspective on justice. Let me see the bigger picture of Your Lordship. Let me see the pecking order through Your eyes.