Category Archives: Life issues

If I Had Preached…

One of the gifts our congregation gives to their ministers is an occasional sabbatical—a time to get away and rest and recover.  That is what I am doing January-February.  It is a wonderful time to just be, to read books that don’t have anything to do with a sermon, to think about things that I don’t have time to think about during “normal” time.

But these are not normal times.  This past week my daughter texted me wondering if I was glad or relieved that I wasn’t preaching this week.  I said, “Yes.” 

I didn’t preach this week.  Instead I worshipped with the congregation of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham and heard a wonderful sermon from my friend Dorisanne Cooper. 

But the events of this past week, especially with the immigration ban, got me thinking about what I would have said if I had been preaching.  It isn’t complete, but here is what I think I would have said.

The fall of 1978 I had the privilege of studying in London.  During our break a group of us traveled around Europe—Cologne, Munich, Interlaken, Rome.  I left the group to visit some friends who were studying in Venice, but then had the task of making my way across Europe, to London, alone.

Now remember that I am an American, which means I speak English.  Only English.  For several days I had the chore of trying to read menus, find restrooms, get directions.  You can only imagine my relief when I finally boarded the ferry in Calais that would take me across the English Channel to England.

In the words of that famous author, Snoopy, “It was a dark and storm night!”  All night long the ferry was being tossed to and fro making sleep impossible.  To ward off the tossing and turning of my stomach I walked the deck.  It was one of those where even the most sober looked drunk!  It was about 45 minutes from arrival when suddenly, the clouds parted and a full moon was shining on the white cliffs of Dover.  Even now I remember the feeling, that feeling of, If I can just get there!  If I can just get there I will be able to read the signs; I will be able to understand; if I can just get there I will be home!

I was just a student trying to get back to a dorm.  But I have thought about that experience in these days, thinking about those families arriving at JFK airport in New York, just a few feet away from being in their new home, in the United States, the land of freedom where the Statue of Liberty proclaims, “give me your tired, your poor your huddled masses yearning to be free,”  What would it be like being that close, and being turned away.

That was the case for countless men and women and children last night as a result of the presidential order issued by President Trump Friday.  Basically the order severely restricts immigration from seven Muslim countries, suspends all refugee admission for 120 days, and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely. It has been met with protest around the country because many have received this as being an anti-Muslim ban.  But it also raises questions for us about what it means to be Baptist, about what it means to be Christian.

You see, if we are Baptist, really Baptist, this is rule that we must reject, oppose, protest.  We must because it goes against the very core of who we are!  It goes against our history, our beginning.

Roger Williams was exiled from the Massachusetts colony by the Puritans for his religious beliefs.  He was driven into the “howling winter” and would have died if not for the hospitality of the native Americans.  Later he bought land from them and established the colony of Rhode Island which he was was a colony for those distressed of conscience, a place where everyone was free to worship, or not worship, in the manner they saw fit. 

At our best that is who Baptists have always been.  We have been the defenders of religious liberty, not only for ourselves but for everyone! Even if their beliefs have run opposite from ours.  We have done so because of our deep belief in soul competency, the right and responsibility of ever person to deal with God.  The government has no right to come between, nor to discriminate against any religion or faith!  That has been the hallmark of Baptists.  It has been the shining American light.

On Friday night that light was dimmed.  How will we respond?  Will we just sit back and say nothing?  Will we be more concerned with who wins the Pro Bowl?  Will we see this as just another political dispute that really doesn’t concern us?  Or will we say that our history, our heritage, who we are as Baptists demand that we reject this discriminatory ruling?  This really is a “Who are we” moment.  We can say nothing, but then integrity demands that we remove the name Baptist from our sign!

It is an important question, an urgent question.  But it isn’t the most important.  The most important question is one of our faith.  Are we going to be followers of Christ? 

The Bible is clear!  “The Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration.  In fact, the Hebrew word ger, the closest word to our concept of an immigrant, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone.”  We claim to be “People of the Book.”  So hear some of what the scripture has to say to us, today!

“You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

“Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; don’t plan evil against each other!” (Zechariah 7:10)

“You have brought your judgment days near and have come to your years of punishment [because] father and mother are treated with contempt, and the foreign resident is exploited within you. The fatherless and widow are oppressed in you” (Ezekiel 22:4, 7)

“If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever” (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

“Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3)

“The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalm 146:9)

“‘I will come to you in judgment, and I will be ready to witness against sorcerers and adulterers; against those who swear falsely; against those who oppress the widow and the fatherless, and cheat the wage earner; and against those who deny justice to the foreigner. They do not fear Me,’ says the LORD of Hosts” (Malachi 3:5)

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2)

“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11)

“‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:35-40)

So much of the time we live an easy faith.  We live a nice faith.  We live what has been called moral deism—just be good people, nice people, polite people.  And most of the time, in our nice, polite, Southern Christian culture, that really comes close to passing for Christian.

But there are times….Times when we need to decide who we are; time when we have to decide.  I want to suggest that this is one of those times.  This is one of those times when we have to decide if we are Baptist.  This is one of those times when we have to decide if we are Jesus people.  This is one of those times. 

Last fall Anita and I had the opportunity to visit Boston.  Our last afternoon, totally by accident we stumbled upon the Boston Holocaust Memorial.  It is very simple, just some glass panels over a subway grate where heat and steam push upimg_3253.  On the glass panels are images of the concentration camps.  But what struck me was the inscriptions on the ground—quotes from survivors, ministers, rabbis, historians.  One in particular caught my attention and my soul.  It read, “While most people aided the Nazis or looked the other way, there were some courageous individuals in Germany and throughout Europe who risked their life to save the Jews.”

50 years from now when the Muslim Holocaust memorial is built, where will we stand?  With those who aided the oppressors, or looked the other way?  Or will we counted among the courageous, the faithful, the Baptists?

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Wait! Someone was listening?

I will admit it.  Most of the time I wonder if anyone is paying any attention to my sermon.  And I understand why.  Week after week, blah blah blah blah Jesus, blah blah blah God. Amen.  We have heard it all before.  No one is paying any attention. 

But then one morning you are reading your paper and suddenly you see your idea, your thought show up in the national news!  Someone that wasn’t even in worship that morning has obviously caught wind of your idea and now wants to make it national policy!

It happened today!  Well, the sermon was this summer, a sermon about Zacchaeus.  (I will pause for a moment while you sing the song.  Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he….)

Anyway, as a way of explaining who he was, and how he had earned his wealth, I gave this explanation.

And in this place, in this place Zacchaeus was a tax collector.  No, not A tax collector, but the chief tax collector!  It was a job that was the envy of all.  Sure, it meant that he had to conspire with the Romans; it meant that he bore the scorn of all his fellow Jews—but when you are living in one of the nicest homes in the winter capitol you can put up with a lot of scorn!

And it wasn’t like he had done anything wrong.  He had just worked the system the way it was set up!  The Romans had fashioned a system to collect taxes from their far-flung empire.  They appointed a chief tax collector who had the responsibility of sending Rome a certain amount of money each year.  If the revenue got to Rome all was well.  If it didn’t, it was the chief tax collector’s head that was on the line—or chopping block—literally!  All they wanted was the money!  How that was collected was not their concern! 

Imagine for a moment that you had that job, and Columbia said that you needed to send $100,000 this month to the coffers.  How would you do it?  Tax income—you can.  But what if you decided instead to tax every car that crossed a river?  Imagine how much money you would bring in if there was a toll booth before every bridge in Charleston—and it cost just $1.00 to cross—every bridge!  I mean, it’s only a dollar.  Not that much, but after a while, it would start to add up, because remember the fee goes each way!  Every car, every truck, every vehicle crossing a bridge pays $1.00.  How much revenue would that bring in?  This week Brian Hicks reported that there are 55,000 cars that use the Ashley River bridge every day!  Can you do the math?

And remember, you only have to send Columbia $100,000!  And if you can tax a car on the bridges, why not on the roads without bridges?  And why not the boats that come up the rivers?  Do you see the profit in this!

That is how Zacchaeus had gotten rich.  He had added another tax to the people’s burden in order to pad his pocket.  He hadn’t done anything wrong.  He had played by the system; he had worked his way up the ladder; he had succeeded!  He was rich!

12chao-master768Now obviously this wasn’t meant to be government policy!  At least, I didn’t think it was.  So imagine my surprise when I read that yesterday in her nomination hearing to become Secretary of Transportation, Elaine L. Chao, wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of KY, suggested that we might want to explore more public-private partnerships as a way of improving our nation’s sagging infrastructure.

Now on it’s face, that looks like a great idea!  Why raise gas taxes when we can drive on the Vulcan Materials Motorway.  (Ms Chao is on the board of Vulcan Materials)  And who could be against the Halliburton Highway?  It is their money that is funding it, right?

Remember that when you pay the toll on the road!

But wait!  It was my idea shared at Providence Baptist!  Maybe we should just but the Providence Baptist Wando Bridge on I-526!  It is the way people from Mt. Pleasant get to church!  We could charge $1.00 for everyone to cross it.  We will give a pass to church members who have made a pledge!  The funds will be used for missions, and good stuff!  It will be a definite membership enhancement!  You don’t have to join to use our bridge.  Just pay $1.00—each way.  Of course, you can always take another route.  And we aren’t doing anything wrong!  It is just the way the rules work.

Maybe I should listen to my sermon!

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Wisdom from today? No! But For Today!

As the title says, there are some items that I come across that just don’t make the sermon.  They are goo0d, but they just don’t fit.  But they still need to be shared!

Here is one of those I came across last week.  They are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and seem so appropriate for this political season.

15584“Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil.  One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force.  Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes pool, at the least, uncomfortable.  Against folly we have no defense.  Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved—indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. 

So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact he can easily become dangerous, as it does not make much to make him aggressive.  A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Letters and Papers from Prison.

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The Gravity of the Situation

sandra-bullock-s-gravity-set-to-kick-off-venice-film-festivalIt was a rainy Monday when Anita and I made the decision to go to the movies.  Scouring the paper we saw that Gravity 3D was playing close by–at a matinee!  Just what I needed on my day off–a flight of fantasy!

Little did I know that I would be shot into a spiritual void.  Sitting there eating my popcorn (you can’t go to the movie without buying overpriced popcorn!) on the edge of my seat I found myself becoming more and more worried about Sandra Bullock, but even more for those of us like her.

At the height of her crisis she cries out the line that kept haunting my soul,

“Nobody will pray for my soul,”I’ve never said a prayer in my life. Nobody ever taught me how.”

I just had to wonder, how many say the same thing day after day after day.

What does that say about us?

Are we teaching people to pray?

Who taught you to pray?

“One of his disciples said to him, Lord teach us to pray…”

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Wondering Where Our Center of Worship Really Is

SacredCowSeveral years ago Anita gave me a subscription to The Atlantic.  It is one of the magazines that come into our house that every month I promise (and usually keep) to read at the very least the cover article.  Let me say that if you don’t subscribe you need to head out and get the current issue.  It really raises a few really interesting articles about American culture and our love affair/worship/obsession with sports.

In the cover article (which I have not finished yet–these are not twitter length articles.  They have depth!) Amanda Ripley takes on one of our sacred cows, suggesting that our students would be better off if we took sports out of our schools and put them as truly extra-curricular activities.  But that isn’t what hit me!  What really caught my attention were these lines:

Athletics succeeded in distracting not just students but entire communities. As athletic fields became the cultural centers of towns across America, educators became coaches and parents became boosters.

I have to wonder–have athletic fields become the cultural centers of our communities?  From a casual observation, I would have to say so!  They have replaced concert halls, museums, churches.  Don’t think so?  Just drive by most soccer fields on Sunday morning.

Still not convinced?  Flip on over in this issue of The Atlantic to see Greg Easterbrook’s love-hate exposé of the NFL and how the wealthy owners continue to fleece (his words) taxpayers.  (Did you know that the NFL is a not-for-profit corporation? )  I read this the same week that the House of Representatives voted to cut $39 Billion from the program that provides food for the poorest of our neighbors.  It just raised the question of priorities for me all over again.

Just asking the question can be dangerous, though, don’t you think?  I mean, can you imagine a world without Friday Night Football?  But what about a world without English classes?

What does this say about us?

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Is There Something You Want to Say, God?

There are times when it seems that God isn’t really subtle.  Oh, I have never seen handwriting on the wall (other than that time when our children wanted to do artwork!!)  I’ve never been struck blind on the road to Damascus, even though I did have that little bout with Neuromyelitis optica.  But still, there are times when God seems to go out of God’s way to speak a word.

It has happened over the past 24 hours.  I was driving to the office on Saturday to finish my sermon (OK, to start the sermon!) I was thinking about what I was going to do, how I was going to get it started, when my attention was caught by a song on the radio.  Apparently it has been out for a while, but I have been in Bali, so it was new to me.  I got to the office and quickly went to YouTube to see this thing that had come to pass.  Here is what I saw.  (Please ignore the ad.  I don’t know how to eliminate it!)

Then we came into worship this morning at 9:00.  We had put the service together several weeks ago.  I had typed the songs titles into the worship planning sheet–but to be honest I really didn’t look at the words.  I normally do, but this time I didn’t!  So imagine my wonder when I heard the congregation sing…

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  And the waves they shall not overcome you.  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name and you are mine…I am the Lord…Do not fear.”

The text today dealt with a woman who was afflicted by a spirit that crippled her.  I can’t help but wonder if the spirit that so often afflicts us…oh, lets be honest…afflicts me is the spirit of fear.

So God hits me across the head to say, “Do not fear…I want to see you be brave!”

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A Good Ironing Needed

It isn’t supposed to be like this.

white shirtYesterday as I prepared to go to the funeral of a dear friend’s mother, who died at 64 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, I carefully packed my Land’s End No Iron shirt.   But of course, when I got ready to get dressed this morning I discovered that it was in need of a good ironing.  So I stand here trying to get the wrinkles out of the sleeves, the front, the back—listening to the news reports coming from the aftermath of the Boston Bombing.

It isn’t supposed to be like this.

Today is the day when people are swapping stories of how they overcame Heartbreak Hill, how they rejoiced over crossing the finish line, how they are nursing legs that are so sore.  We aren’t supposed to be nursing broken hearts, mourning over those who were stopped short of the finish line, mourning legs that are missing.

It isn’t supposed to be like this.

VTAs we sit getting ready to head to the funeral, my Virginia Tech alum wife is remembering the events that erupted on her campus several years ago.  Classes disrupted, lives cut short, innocence destroyed.  Since then there has been Aurora, Phoenix, Newtown, and so many others…

It isn’t supposed to be like this.

 

I find surprising calm in watching the steam take away the wrinkles in the sleeves.  There is something comforting in watching the front of my shirt recover its No Iron look, even with the help of an iron.

There are times when I wish God would just iron the world.

But I guess that is our job.

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