Friday, December 01, 2006

Moments of Transition

Every family experiences moments of transition. A parent dies. When my father died early last year, it forced numerous changes in roles and relationships. My mother, my brothers,even members of the church where he had preached had to assume new responsibilities. The youngest child leaves home. This happened to me earlier this year. When my son left for college, I was amazed at the multitude of very different emotions I experienced. A grandchild dies unexpectedly. Years ago, a friend of mine was driving a tractor and wagon on his farm when his grandson fell from the wagon and died. Grief over unexpected loss often is hard to heal. These moments change relationships within families as they adapt to the gain or loss of a personality, as they search for someone to fill the role of the absent person, as they search for new meaning. Sometimes, unfortunately, previously formed hostility and aliances solidify at these moments in ways that harm the family. Such a moment in the family of Abraham is recorded i the Bible in Genesis 25. Previously, Abraham had sent his son Ishmael away at the insistence of his wife Sarah so that Ishmael would not threaten the status of their son, his chosen heir, Isaac. Abraham died and was buried by the side of Sarah, who had died years earlier. Ishmael and Isaac returned to honor their father. The two brothers stood side by side at the grave of a father who loved them both. It could have been a poignant moment of reconciliation that would have changed history. However,, the next few verses of the Bible say that while God blessed Isaac, Ishmael's descendants lived inhostility toward all their brethren. A critical opportunity had been missed. Besides the events mentioned earlier, holidays also provide the opportunity to get together, to forgive, and to rejoice. they also can be times of torture where families revisit past hurts. This year, seize the opportunity for joy. Let your family's moment of transition mark a renewal of commitment and love.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Thanksgiving Far from Home

This was a unique Thanksgiving, observed far from family and familiar settings. Nevertheless, I spent it with honored comrades and my spiritual family. Most of the day was spent with National Guardsmen serving their nation and state far from home. I prefaced the prayer for our meal with readings from Psalms 105 and 106, emphasizing the phrase from Psalm 106 that states, "Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right." As these soldiers help to maintain security for our nation by identifying smugglers and others who would endanger our way of life, they help keep Americans safe and comfortable, even those who do not recognize their sacrifices or appreciate what they are doing.
Did you give thanks after the elections for living in a nation where the government can change without riots, insurrection, or assassinations? We truly are blessed. May we maintain this ability to work in harmony even when disagreeing.
My Thanksgiving included telephone conversations with family and loved ones who are too far away. Several friends sent emails to remind me of their care for me. The day concluded with festive sharing of dessert with my local church family. The church, when it functions as the body of Christ and the family of God, provides the ultimate support group for sinners, which is what we all are. There are those who believe that the church's role is fruit inspecting or preliminary judging. However, the Scriptures teach that it is encouraging, healing, and helping the broken-hearted.
Give thanks for our God's amazing grace.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Favorite Songs

Some of my favorite songs:

"The Impossible Dream," Neil Diamond's "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," "The Hallelujah Chorus," "While on the Sea (a hymn with a haunting minor key melody)," and songs by Meatloaf and Kansas. Lately "Forever and for always" by Shania Twain has caught my attention (and I usually don't like country songs that much). I do tend to like love songs that focus on relationships that are phenomenally good. I appreciate songs that reveal depth of pain and loss, but am deeply troubled by songs that spew hatred and profanity. How do these songs improve people's lives?
Goals? Remember the song "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony"? My goal is to see harmony not only in singing but in speaking and listening.
What are your songs? And what do our favorite songs say about us?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Checking the facts

In discussions of politics and religion, people often respond emotionally to issues before they check the facts. That, at least, is how it appears to me. Whether discussing issues like military involvement overseas, the economy, ethics, or the treatment of religion in a popular novel or movie, first responses frequently come from visceral reactions, rather than a reasoned consideration of what has been said or depicted. Several weeks ago, I heard a preacher state that we are baptized "into death" in a sermon on Romans 6, not because of death to sin. I began to feel my blood pressure rise; I disagreed with his statment. Fortunately, my Bible was open in my lap to the passage, and I read it before I opened my mouth after the service and removed all doubt that I was a fool. My assumption was wrong; the preacher was right! Our beliefs begin in our parent's words to us, our experiences, what we hear respected leaders say. Sometimes those foundations are faulty. Check your sources before you lash out. Read, then rebut (or repent).

Thursday, October 12, 2006

First Century Night

This past Sunday evening I attended a church of Christ which observed "First Century Night." Basing the idea on 1 Corinthians 14:26, the leaders of the congregation invited any male member to lead a prayer or a song, read a scripture, or preach a short sermon. The service was inspiring and was centered around the theme of "Heaven." Sermons ranged from memories of a devotional in Africa to the last words of a preacher to his son (my dad to me: "Son, see you later!"). Prayers were thoughtful and songs were inspiring. It just seemed right. Later about seventeen of us enjoyed a meal together at a local restaurant. It was an evening of fellowship: spiritually and socially.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A terrible choice

I just finished reading a remarkable book entitled The Memory-Keepers Daughter by Kim Edwards. In it, a physician makes a startling, even horrifying decision which alters his life forever. The book addresses important questions about attitudes towards the handicapped, family relationships, and the keeping of secrets. In the novel, Dr. David Henry gives away his daughter, a twin born with Down's Syndrome, just after her birth, without the knowledge of his sedated wife, whom he later tells that the second child had died. His secret alters the lives of his wife, the remaining "normal" twin, and those they meet.
Another sacrifice of a daughter is recorded in Judges 11, where Israel's military leader, Jephthah, vows that if God gives him victory in battle, he will sacrifice what he sees first when he returns home. To his horror, his daughter rushes out of the house to meet him. Remarkably, Jephthah appears in the "Hall of Fame of Faith" in Hebrews 11. His dedication, his willingness to sacrifice anything for God probably explain his appearance there. Still, his is an unexpected entry alongside Abraham, Noah, and Enoch. Like Samson and Barak, he is an unexpected faith hero.
What do you think? I think his story parallels also Abraham's, when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his "only-begotten" son, Isaac. God spared Abraham from performing that terrible act at the last moment; some argue that Jephthah too was spared and that he "devoted his daughter to God" in some other fashion. His horror suggests otherwise to me.
Sometimes redemption emerges after terrible choices; sometimes it does not. I pray that your life will be filled with hope and redemption.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


A looking within marks many of David's psalms in the Bible. He cries out in anguish; he asks why God has forsaken him. He also rejoices when he discovers, or remembers, the Lord's presence in his darkest hours. In Psalm 31, he laments "the utter contempt" of his neighbors. David's psalms, and the trek of self-discovery they divulge, provide an example of what may be called self-leadership. David was a dynamic leader. He inspired others to do well. He had been a good follower as well, refusing to abandon humility and to revolt even when Saul attacked him. David struggled mightily, and at times failed miserably. But he remained a friend of God and a great leader because he was willing to do what it took to return when he left the will of God. Psalm 51 records repentance after one of his best known sins. Self-leadership includes the ability to see one's faults and correct them. Continuing one's personal growth through lifelong learning and prayer are also part of self-leadership. When we become content with where we are and what we already know, we stagnate. Self-leadership also means being able to discern when to take a break and when to let others lead. So, grow! Lead, if only yourself! The Lord will bless your leadership as it remains focused on his will.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Travel Ramblings

I drove two thousand miles last week, travelling almost all the way across the United States. From the live oaks of Georgia to the rolling hills and rivers of Tennessee to the isolated wilderness (and a meteor crater) of West Texas to the almost alien landscapes of New Mexico and Arizona, I witnessed great natural beauty and evidence of God's greatness.
Human interaction also provided intriguing insights into God's workmanship. I saw several friends I had not seen for a long time. With one, it was as if we had seen each other the day before. Hopefully, it will not be nearly so long before the next meeting. With each, I marvelled at how they had changed, and what our relationship said about who I am. Could it be that our friends define us?
I visited the campus of Abilene Christian University. May its leaders keep alive a hunger for being Bod's people among their students and may they always honor those whose love for the Lord and desire to build leaders for a restoration of New Testament Christianity was a catalyst for great sacrfices as they laid the foundation for today's university.
I visited several churches of Christ. They ranged greatly in size and in personality. One was thoroughly integrated racially, another had elderly members, another had a large number of high school and college students. Yet, in each the people loved to sing God's praises and the preacher proclaimed a message from God's word. Each church had problems, I am sure, but I had not come to search for them.
Now I begin a new phase of life and ministry. This blog will continue, but may at times reflect my different geographic setting. Pray for me as I do for all who read this, that I may know courage and hope.
I saw an intriguing bumper sticker as I traveled: "May God give you twice what you wish for me." My first thought was, "What a wonderful sentiment, to wish so much good." Then I had a more cynical thought; perhaps this was an admonition for those who wished him ill. Let's break away from hurtful wished and road rage. Wish the stranger in the next car the best. He or she may be having a much worse day than yours. As I drove through an Ohio city years ago, a man who passed me blew his horn and flashed an obscene gesture at me. Then I saw his bumper sticker, "Christians aren't perfect, only forgiven. How true. You and I may make horrible mistakes, but if we keep our eyes on Jesus (Read Hebrews chapter 12), we may discover that God has not given up on us yet. Show God's grace wherever you go.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Who helps you when you're down?

Who encourages you when you are down? Perhaps it's an old college roommate, a former teacher, or your spouse. The prototype encourager in the New Testament was a man named Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus who became a disciple of Jesus. Repeatedly, this man took actions that comforted and encourage. He sold his own land and gave to the poor in the church. He took the side of new converts with whom established church members were not comfortable (one of those unaccepted new converts whom Joseph stood up for is better known to us as the apostle Paul). He mentored less-seasoned preachers and groomed them for greater service. Joseph encouraged so well that he earned a nick name - Barnabas, the son of consolation or the encourager.
Maybe you are the encourager in your group and don't even realize it. Military chaplains sometimes talk about the "ministry of presence," encouragement and spiritual assistance that is somehow given simply by just being there. Your presence may make it easier for another to do what is right. Your attendance at worship services may inspire someone who is discouraged and might drift away if not for your example. Sometimes a simple smile from someone at the right time helps me. So, keep smiling. Give a hug to the downcast. Give a cup of water to the thirsty. The ministry of encouragement is not always dramatic. It is, however, crucial. Thank you to my encouragers. It would be so hard without your prayers, hugs, e-mails, and brilliant smiles. Keep the Barnabas tradition going.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

When People Just Won't Leave You Alone

It seems that it is almost impossible to get away these days. When you settle back in a secluded spot to read a good book or cast a fishing line or just spend a few treasured moments with a loved one, your cell-phone interrupts. Your automobile is equipped with GPS, which helps others to find you when you're in an accident and disabled, or any other time, for that matter. Meanwhile, work schedules grow increasingly more intense. You want a break. I know I do. Jesus did, too. On several occasions, he broke away from the crowds for some quiet time to pray, or fish, or just do what ever a Messiah does on vacation. In Mark 7:24-30, for example, Jesus makes a rare excursion outside Palestine. He goes to the vicinity of Tyre. If you have watched the news recently, you've seen reports of Israel's attacks on southern Lebanon. Among the cities bombed was Tyre. Jesus went to a house in Tyre and the Bible says that he wanted no one to know it. Why? Perhaps he just needed some down time. However, it was not to be. He could not keep his presence a secret, even far from home. A non-Jewish woman from that area, who had a daughter who was demon-possessed, heard that the miracle-working teacher from Galilee was in her city and tracked him down. How do you react when someone intrudes on your personal time? Are you more abrupt, perhaps even a little rude? Jesus replies to her initial request with a cryptic remark that seems almost rude and perhaps even racist. "First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs," he said. Gentiles were unclean, as were dogs. This woman was on a mission, however, and she would not be pushed aside. With just a touch of humor, the desperate woman responded to the curt dismissal, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Jesus was impressed. "For such a reply, you may go," he said. "The demon has left your daughter." She went home and found that her daughter had been healed. This story has much to say to us. First, like Jesus, we may have times when we want to be left alone, but people, maybe even people we do not like, really need our help. We may have to struggle to contain our frustration or even revulsion. They still need our help, and most of us have probably had a time when we needed help but it seemed that no one cared. We have to take a deep breath, and listen, then help if we can. Second, like the woman, we may be brushed aside by someone who is preoccupied or off-duty or on vacation. Their treatment of us may sting, may even cut deeply. This woman's grace when rejected speaks to us. Responding with anger or cursing rarely helps. Humor and good-mannered persistence may. We may even need to ask if we might come back at a better time. Third, Jesus's initial response may remind us that cultural values and environment influence our responses. Even if Jesus was just testing the woman (as many commentators suggest), his response was just what this Gentile woman might have expected from a typical Jewish man of the time. Later, Peter the apostle would have his own struggles with cultural bias (Acts 9, Galatians 2). Fourth, Jesus's ultimate response demonstrates that racial or ethnic prejudice have no place in a Christian's worldview. Jesus reached out repeatedly to people whom his cultural peers found disgusting: Gentiles, lepers, tax collectors, Roman soldiers.
Jesus helped this woman. It was not a good time for him (perhaps a fifth lesson here is that everyone needs to take some time off), but he still came through. Sometimes, we don't. It is at those times that we need to remember this woman and her statement that "even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children's table." We're more like the dogs in those moments when we fail to show grace. We need the crumbs of grace, too. Jesus will help us, too.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

AWOL: a book you need to read

Among the unsung heroes of any war are military families. Some time ago I saw the author of a new book being interviewed on television. Frank Schaeffer, whose father's books about religion and worldview I read in college, talked with the wife of a military chaplain about his new book AWOL, which he had co-written with Kathy Ross-Douquet. General Tommy Franks wrote the foreword to the book and Senator John McCain writes a glowing note of approval on the cover. Schaeffer is a Republican; Ross-Douquet is a Democrat who actually worked in the Clinton White House. This is not a book written from the fringe. The book discusses a new phenomenon in American society which has emerged since World War II, and that has accelerated since the Vietnam Conflict: the failure of children from wealthy or politically powerful families to enlist in the military. Five of President Franklin Roosevelt's children seved in the military. Their cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was the only American General on the beach on D-Day. John F. Kennedy and his brother Joseph served in the military; Joseph died in action. Today, some private colleges prevent military recruiters from visiting their campuses. Schaeffer began his pilgrimage towards writing this book when his son decided to join the Marines rather than attend an Ivy League university. Ross-Douquet, after establishing a successful political activist career, married a Marine officer, only to receive sympathetic comments from friends who could not understand how so talented a man would choose the military rather than a civilian career. The book reminds us about the importance of duty and honor in military service, and the potential dangers of having people who have not served or who will not let their children serve make the decision to send less fortunate people's children to war. Both the nation and military suffer when all parts of society are not represented in the military. This is a significant issue; I encourage you to read the book and weigh its argument for yourself. I have served in the active duty and reserve components of the military; I encouraged my children to talk to recruiters. Especially if you support our nation's current military expeditions, have you or your children volunteered to serve? If not, why not? Is it because you have sincere moral objections or do you think your family is too privileged to share in the responsibility of defending our nation?
I want to encourage the parents, spouses, and children of our military members. I've spent a lot of time this summer with military families; their pain, pride, love, and sacrifice stand in stark contrast with some I have met during my travels who had almost forgotten we were at war. A new "greatest generation" is emerging; sadly, too many are opting out. I commend those who who are at least talking to recruiters and telling their grown children to do so. Thank you for your integrity.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Unexpected heroes: Gideon

Gideon is another occupant of the Hall of Fame of Faith whose recognition might be unexpected. His story begins in Judges chapter 6. When an angel informs him that God has a mission for him, he tries to beg out. Admittedly, he is not unique in such a refusal. Moses, Jeremiah, and Jonah, to name a few, also tried to avoid calls to service. Like Moses, Gideon objected that others were better qualified. He also questioned the source of his call and demanded a sign. God provided a sign. The skeptical Gideon then asked that the sign be repeated - in reverse. After the reversal, Gideon went to work. Even then, he registered some shock as God reduced radically the number of soldiers in his army. However, in the moment of truth, Gideon used ingenuity, deception, and initiative to lead Israel to victory. By faith, Gideon prevailed. By faith, we can also endure. If God could make Gideon a hero of faith, what can he do with you?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Independence Day

Independence Day - fireworks, concerts, cookouts, movies, reflection. How are you spending your day? As many relax today, it's tempting to forget the stress and fear that the men who signed the Declaration of Independence felt as they signed that document. Even John Hancock's bravado as he signed signal an awareness of the risk that they were taking. As we commemorate that day and their embracing of risk, let's make choices that demonstrate an appreciation of what they did that day. Today, thousands of our fellow citizens are away from home fighting for freedom. Let's honor them also by valuing our freedom, using it responsibly but remaining alert to attempts to attack it.
Freedom requires discipline, otherwise it deteriorates and becomes anarchy. Freedom requires flexibility and toleration, otherwise it morphs into fascism. Celebrate freedom by exercising power under control and by protecting the freedom of others.

How are these people heroes? (July 13, 2006)

Christians often regard Hebrews 11 as a Hall of Fame of Faith. As they wander through its corridors, viewing the displays (otherwise known as "reading the chapter"), they gasp at the achievements of Abraham, Noah, Jacob, and Joseph. But as I did when I visited the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and had only a brief time to visit, they sprint past "less important" exhibits and only scan the more important ones. Even the curator (writer) lamented that he did not have more time to talk about heroes like Barak, Jephthah, Gideon, and Samson. So, if I had more time in the Hebrews 11 museum, how could I learn more? All four names of the overlooked come from the book of Judges, arguably one of the most depressing books in the Old Testament. It is a catalogue of failures by the people of God. Even our four heroes had notable spiritual lapses. With Barak and Jephthah, we may even scratch our heads, and say, "How is this man a hero of faith?" Barak was a military leader of Israel during a time when the tribes of Israel were overrun by a Canaanite king named Jabin, who had his own military leader, Sisera. Barak's (and Israel's) spiritual/political leader was a woman named Deborah. Of course, Deborah's leadership status would seem to conflict with patriarchal stereotypes sometimes ascribed to ancient Israel. Deborah informs Barak that God will give him the victory if he leads Israel against Jabin and the Canaanites. The great hero of faith responds that he will indeed lead his people into battle, but only if Deborah goes with him. Remember, despite Deborah's status, this is still a traditional patriarchal society. Deborah herself almost seems sarcastic as she assents to Barak's request. Our question is simply, "How is Barak a hero of faith?" Simply, despite his fears, Barak still believed God's promise. He led Israel into battle. They won the victory. People sometimes rely on the vision and faith of leaders. That does not negate the reality of their own faith. It may not be so bold or expansive, but faith still exists and provides the resources for victory. They may not be the headliners, but they often are the heroes of those who get the glory.
(More to come about Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and other unsung heroes of Hebrews 11)

Saturday, June 10, 2006


I love blackberries. No, I'm not writing about communication devices but about the original blackberries, those succulent dark purple berries that do so well in cobblers and jam. I remember going with my parents and brothers to a friend's farm in Northern West Virginia as a preteen. We hiked across a field and up a hill to a bramble infested area where we discovered a treasure-trove of blackberries. Why does that day linger in my memory?
Earlier this week, as I mowed the grass in my yard, I spied familiar berries in an area that had grown out of control this spring as my sons mowed the grass. So, at noon today, I took a bowl from the cupboard and hiked the the fifty feet across my level yard to the blackberry patch. Picking blackberries carries a cost. The most treasured moments in life do. Scratches on my legs and arms testify that the vines do not give up their fruits without a struggle. I picked only enough to fill my small bowl. Those berries tasted great; I thanked God for this treat.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

666 and Seeking the Will of God

In the beginning, God...
Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness...
Love the Lord your God with all your heart...

These excerpts from the Bible remind us who it is all about - not me, not you, no celebrity, no politician - Life is about God and being his person. When we seek to find ourselves, but leave God out, we ensure we will discover only a shadow of our potential, for we have excluded our Creator and Designer, the one who knows already what we seek to learn.

Recreation, advancement at work, et al. clutter our calendars and our minds. Pop psychology and superstition distort our faith and our view of God. Prime example: Today is June 6, 2006, which may be written 6-6-06. It brings to mind for many, apparently, the number of the Antichrist from the book of Revelation. Revelation is literature written in an apocalyptic figurative style. Taking it literally creates all types of nonsense. Television news reported about a women who had had her child's birth induced a day earlier so it would not be born today. Students in a public school history class didn't want to complete an assignment that came from page 666 in their textbooks. Remarkably, some of those same students had no problem with using profanity, showing disrespect to teachers, being unproductive in their schoolwork, and with making sexually suggestive statements. Their religious mentors had taught them superstition rather than the will of God for a holy lifestyle.

"Fear God and keep his commands, for this is the whole duty of man." (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Why go to church?

Why go to church? As one man expressed it to me years ago, one can worship God as well alone by a babbling brook. Yet, when we read biblical accounts of the early church, we discover a resounding emphasis on the importance of community: Christians grow stronger when spending regular time together.
Acts chapter 2:42-47 records that the earliest Christians met together in homes daily. Other passages suggest meetings that took place on at least a weekly basis.
Hebrews 10:25 is a frequent focus for discussion on this topic. At times, it is approached as a command - "Don't forsake the assembling of the saints." Certainly, it underlines the importance of assembling with other Christians. It supplies several reasons why such attendance is imperative.
We worship together as a means of drawing near to God. This term often is used to refer to prayer and prayer can be done alone. Prayer in community has great power. We worship together to encourage other Christians. The original readers of Hebrews included discouraged Christians. They were drifting away. The assembly provides a context for remembering that others share our beliefs and that someone else cares about us.
We worship together to "stir up" each other. That expression can mean to provoke to anger, and some Christian assemblies may seem focused on criticism, but the reason for the assembly is to stir up to love and good works. Ephesians 2:1-10 teaches that God created Christians to do good works. "Church" reminds us what our mission is.
Hebrews 10 has horizontal reasons for church attendance (encouraging) but also vertical (we have had our consciences sprinkled with the blood of Christ and our bodies washed with water, drawing near to God through the intercession of our Great High Priest) reasons. This chapter which talks about the importance of church attendance for remaining close to God also describes judgment for those who do not. The verse in this chapter "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" is addressed to Christians about Christians who have turned their backs on their Savior.
I write this not to scold forsakers of the assembly, but to encourage attenders to participate actively in the services, to make the assembly where you are an encouraging experience. Smile at others. Don't rush out the door when the final amen is spoken. Stay and talk. Someone may need your help. The answer to your problem may be in that room. Sing out, focus on the prayers, readings and sermons, be there. Stir someone up to love and good works.

Monday, May 29, 2006


My sons graduated from high school this past weekend. At times, I feared this moment would never come; at others, I feared even more that it would. Now it has arrived, and as they prepare to go on to new adventures, I must learn to disengage when they are determined to go it alone, but be prepared to dive back in if they begin to drown in seas of uncertainty and inexperience. Like many others before me, I feel unequal to this task. I can only pray that we (my sons and I) will act wisely and work together so they may forge futures that will please God and help to make this world a better place.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Faith, hope, and love

Hope keeps us alive. Without hope, faith founders. Without hope, love languishes. Hope sustains and promises a future better than today. Faith, hope, and love form a survival triad for Christians. These three, which appear together in passages like Hebrews 10, Colossians 1, and most famously, 1 Corinthians 13, keep the church and individuals alive - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Hope is the root that springs forth when the seed of God's word is planted in the fertile soil of a receptive mind. Faith grows from hope as the new believer acquires more and more evidence for his hope. Finally, love blossoms from the practice of faith and the sustainment of hope in life, in relationship, in the church, in Christ.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Evidence of the Grace of God

News of the rapidly growing church in the northeast reached the mother church in the south. Some reports disturbed seasoned leaders - suggestions that disciples there had introduced innovations, and that the congregation had achieved a first for the church - a majority of members were from a different ethnic group which had a vastly different cultural background than most Christians.
The older church sent a trusted evangelist to investigate. This preacher would hear preaching. He would observe interaction between the various ethnic groups within the fellowship. He would notice differences - clothing, greetings, diet - that existed among the members of the burgeoning young church.
The Bible records that Barnabas "saw the evidence of the grace of God" at Antioch (Acts 11). He approved, and he stayed to help these young disciples mature in faith. The church in Jerusalem would send other messengers; some would not like what they saw. Ultimately, however, spirit-led leaders like James, Peter, and Paul would join Barnabas in seeing the evidence of the grace of God in Antioch. That church in turn would sponsor the first extensive missionary forays into the Gentile world.
It's easy to criticize when one visits a new congregation. Subtle, and sometimes obvious, differences from home rattle and irritate us. It's harder, but much more exhilarating, to step back, take a deep breath, and probe for evidence of the grace of God.
Jesus and the apostles encouraged deliberate unity. Unity begins with looking for evidence of the grace of God.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Returning soldiers

During the past week, I have talked to several who recently have returned from serving our country overseas. Some have talked and shown pictures about Iraqi families they helped to regain some sense of normalcy. Others have shared information about their visits to archaeological sites associated with biblical characters. I have witnessed great joy as families reunited. I have seen anger, frustration, and confusion bottled up in men and women still trying to cope with what they have seen, touched, tasted, smelled, and heard. One would go back tomorrow if he could. Another cannot even talk about the horror he desperately wants to forget.
All these people are beginning an adventure. Yes, they are starting a journey down a path where random noises and smells will trigger memories and reactions. They will relive moments of achievement. They also will stagger as waves of depression or fear overwhelm them.
They need love - our love and God's love - as they and their families struggle to learn what they have become. Pray for our returning soldiers - National Guard, Active, and Reserve from every branch - and thank God for their courage and for their survival. Pray that they will know peace. Act to make their return a success. Ask how you may help, and when told, do something that will make a positive difference.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

What God Thinks About Us

What does God think about you? As I read Isaiah 66 the other day, that question stared me in the face. The ancient words of the prophet stung fiercely.
"This is what the Lord says:
Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being," declares the Lord.
"This is the one I esteem:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.
The next verses describe the failure of worshippers' sacrifices to please God and contain his assurance that he "will bring upon them what they dread." Why?
"For when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened. They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me (Isaiah 66:1-2,4, NIV)."
No one answered. No one listened. These people, however were praising God. They sacrificed to him. They worshipped. They somehow missed what he wanted: a humble and contrite spirit couple with fear of his word.
As we strive for culturally relevant worship assemblies and organize aggressive parachurch ministries, as we make bold lifestyle decisions, let's remember to take time to ask, "What does God want? Am I still listening to him?"
The Bible contains numerous instances of people who thought they were doing God's will, but were not. Ananias and Sapphira, Saul of Tarsus, the Sanhedrin, and Diotrephes are only a few who missed the mark. Of course, Saul eventually "saw the light." They all (with the possible exception of Ananias and Sapphira) thought that they excelled in doing God's will. What a warning their example is to us.
As I contemplate my life in the mirror of the word of God, I see my failures in bold print. Yet, I also read words of assurance. If I will listen, really listen, and obey, God will give peace and comfort me as a mother comforts her child (Isaiah 66:12,13).

Monday, March 27, 2006

Pray for the Winklers

I, like many, was shocked to hear that minister Matt Winkler had been murdered. His father and grandfather have preached with great influence among churches of Christ for many decades. The entire Winkler family, to include the widow and alleged murderer, needs our prayers at this time of crisis and pain. Rumors and speculation are rampant. I can only imagine the agony that family members feel as they mourn while having to endure public speculation. A Baptist preacher, appearing on talk show "Nancy Grace," used the appearance as an opportunity to bash churches of Christ as an exclusivist cult. However, he rankled Nancy with his approval of a "traditional" role for women. Why did Nancy Grace choose him as an "expert" on the Church of Christ? Surely a professor from Pepperdine University or one of the more than twenty other colleges associated with the church could have done as well. National media have also labeled Winkler's (and my) alma mater, Freed-Hardeman University, as a Bible College. FHU does have a large Biblical Studies department, but also offers degrees in education, business, physical education, music, science, and many other fields. It actually began as a school for teachers, public school teachers. Freed-Hardeman ( is a regionally accredited liberal arts university which offers masters' degrees in education and religion, and which has recently added a nursing program.
May the Lord bless and protect the Winkler family and the local church where Matt preached.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Angry at God?

Anger eats away at our souls. That's how I see it, at least. When I have that kind of gnawing, won't-go-away anger that prevents me from doing anything well, I feel as if a cancer were devouring my spirit. Have you ever been so angry that your emotion paralyzed you? Have you cried out in anger to God, "Where are you? How could you let this happen?" I've felt that way. So did the writer(s) of several Psalms. Take a moment and read Psalms 6, 13, and 22. There is anger in those Psalms, as well as desperation. If the first verse of Psalm 22 sounds familiar, perhaps it's because Jesus said the very same words as he hung in excruciating pain on the cross. "My God, why have you forsaken me?" he asked. Isolation resonates from the cross.
What can we do? Pray, someone might say, and be correct. However, sometimes people are so angry at God that they don't want to talk to him. It's hard enough at those times just to listen to what he says (See the Bible.). Sometimes I do as the psalmist did, and express my thoughts in writing. I run or shoot a basketball (Note: The basketball idea doesn't work as well unless the ball occasionally drops in the basket). I confide in a trusted friend. Once or twice, I've done my best imitation of the character in Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream." Some people call that a primal scream, and claim that it cleanses the soul. Maybe. What works best for me, however, is singing.
Some hymns express so well what I'm feeling in those moments of darkness. "While on the sea, hear the terrible roaring. See how the boat of my life rolls me. In fear of death, and deepest of anguish, Lord, watch my soul as I drift on the sea," begins a hymn from the Ukraine. Those words have been just the right words for me. Martin Luther's hymn, "Out of the Depths," based on Psalm 42, also has provided comfort and strength. I actually met the man who wrote the music for one of my favorites. "Be with Me, Lord, I cannot live without thee," it begins, and the music composed by L.O. Sanderson, a church of Christ preacher, fits T.O. Chisholm's words like a hand in a glove. Those hymns revive hope.
The company of God's people also has kept me going. Some people stop going to church when things go wrong. That's a bad move, somewhat analogous to running away from the hospital while you're having a heart attack. Perhaps you hurt so badly you cannot pray, or fear so intensely that you cannot sing. Let the prayers and songs of believers massage your soul and revive your spirit. "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective," wrote the brother of Jesus in the book of James, chapter five.
How do you deal with soul-killing anger, with frustration, with darkness of the soul? Share your ideas, for God's people are a family, and your idea might just rescue another. Do you have a favorite song, a ritual, a reading, a habit that renews your soul in times of darkness?


On a completely different track, if you've read my profile, you know why I wore orange instead of being lost in a sea of green today. The University of Tennessee men's basketball team survived to play again in the NCAA tournament. Go Vols!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

My personal scary movie experience

I had the most uncanny experience the other night. While on a business trip, during a commercial in the basketball game, I channel-hopped and found a strange movie in which a television set repeatedly turns itself back on after being turned off. Then a zombie crawls out of the set. After about five minutes of that, I turned back to my game. Shortly thereafter, I turned off the television and went to bed. Fifteen minutes later, the noise of the television awakened me. I turned it off and went back to bed. Fifteen minutes later, it awakened me again. By this time, I began to worry about zombies (just kidding). The plug and socket were behind the heaviest furniture I've seen in a motel. Eventually, I solved the problem by setting the television on sleep mode for fifteen minutes and leaving it on. This time, it turned itself off and stayed off. I had begun to fear that my whole night's sleep would be disrupted and that I would be a zombie equivalent in my meetings the next day. Surprises constantly pop up in life. When you think you cannot lose, you do. When you think all hope is lost, suddenly a rainbow spans the sky. Sometimes things happen that we cannot understand or explain - a child's death, reports of UFO's, my television experience. Usually, as in the case of Job, all works together for good. Didn't the apostle Paul say that in Romans 5? Hope, illusory and derided, sustains us. Without it, we shrivel and die. So, don't fear the zombies. They're probably a figment of your imagination (You might want to worry about that). Keep hoping, and believing. Our God is an awesome God.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Wisdom of Admitting Ignorance

When I was a college student, one professor often frustrated us. When we would ask him a question, he always would answer, "I just don't know. But if you can wait until our next class, I will try to have an answer for you." And he always did. At first, we wondered about this professor's intelligence. Eventually, we recognized his wisdom. Rather than quickly give an answer which might be wrong, he took the time to search for correct information for his students. Sometimes the best answer is, "I don't know." An old saying suggested that it was better to be silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.
Some questions may not require an answer. A college classmate, when asked whether a rumor about his holding a controversial position is true, sometimes answers, "How about that?!" Religious discussion focuses at times on intricate issues. To be frank, we may not need to know all the answers on all the issues. If something is going to happen after my death whether I believe it or not, then I should just trust God to do his job well and not argue if he does it differently than I thought he would. After all, it's his universe. Other issues are more immediate; I need answers yesterday! How to be just, how to show mercy, how to know the difference between right and wrong in today's streets - these demand answers, for they determine the direction of people's lives. Harmful decisions may alter history.
It's alright to admit ignorance; it usually is wise. So, if you don't know, ask. Search for truth. Apologize when you're wrong. And keep searching.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Staying Connected to Christ

I read a comment recently that applauded a movement towards the Spirit and away from the "head union." I'm fairly sure that this was not the author's intent when he talked about movement away from the "head union," but if Christ is head of the body (1 Corinthians 12), do we really want to move away from union with the head? Decapitation is always fatal. Seriously, correction of an extreme always runs the risk of moving to an equally dangerous opposite extreme. As I understand 1 Corinthians, the Holy Spirit does not contradict the Head (Christ). Jesus confronts us with paradox; at times he seems quite noncomformist, at other times quite conservative. As the Father (God) told James, John, and Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration concerning Jesus, "This is my Son, listen to him." Just because a worship experience (or any activity, for that matter) creates a pleasant emotion in us does not mean that it pleases God. On the other hand, just because something is coldly logical does not mean that it pleases God. As we strive for reconciliation with God, we must remember that it is the doing of his will, not ours, that is our prayer.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Seeking Peace

In Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, he describes one character as consumed by greed. This religious official, the pardoner, sells forgiveness for a price, and has a side business in selling relics. His favorite song is the offertory, the hymn sung before the money is collected at church. As the pardoner tells his tale to fellow travelers on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, he warns them that "greed is the root of all evil." Chaucer and his fictional characters lived in an age when one-third of the population had been killed in a pandemic. Survivors lived in a state of grief and fear. The pardoner describes the anger of three young men sitting in a bar. They mourn their dead friends and curse a personified Death. In fact, they resolve to kill Death and set out to find him. The young men encounter an old man who also seeks death, not to kill, but to embrace it. The young men badger him until he tells them where they may find death - under a nearby oak tree. When the men arrive at the tree, they discover eight bags of gold. Their plan to kill death flees their minds; claiming this gold consumes their attention. They decide to split it three ways. One of the men goes into town to buy wine and bread, while the other two remain behind to guard the gold. After he leaves, the two agree that they will kill him when he returns and thus increase their respective shares of the gold. Meanwhile, after buying the wine, the other man goes to a druggist and buys poison, which he pours into a bottle of wine. He plans to take all the gold for himself. When he rejoins his comrades, they stab him to death. Then they celebrate by drinking the poisoned wine.
Sometimes people crave wealth, a person's love, land, power, or something else so badly they can think of nothing else. Greed consumes them, and destroys them as surely as it did the young men. Keeping our values balanced is a challenge that most find daunting.
Jesus said, "Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these will be given to you as well." Serve rather than crave. Seek rather than hoard. Pray rather than slay. When we hurt, we lash out in anger; we seek to destroy.
The Pardoner knew Greed's dangers well; they already had consumed him. We too seek God, we thirst for peace, we crave forgiveness. And we hear the words of Jesus (from John 7:36), "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Who ever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." An early follower of the Jesus wrote (Romans 14:17f.), "For the kingdom of God is not matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing God and approved to men. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification."

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Who is worthy to speak for God?

Moses knew the feeling. When God told him to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt, Moses knew one truth: God was picking the wrong man. Isaiah painfully realized that he was not worthy to be anywhere near God. How could he dare to speak for him? Jonah ran and sailed as hard as he could to get away from God's mission for him. Preachers today sometimes dream that they're standing naked before their congregation or that they're speaking a foreign language (which they don't understand well) while they're preaching. Each dream, like the experiences of the biblical heroes mentioned above, shouts, "How dare I speak for God?" Who is worthy to such a task? Only one, and he now sits at God's right hand: Jesus. But God still reaches out to hardened, hurting people and sometimes he uses other hardened, hurting people to say, "I love you." The Bible talks about the "foolishness of preaching" and God's using "broken vessels." Sometimes I wonder how I can talk to others about God. And then I think, "If I don't, who will?" To be sure, there are thousands out there, perhaps millions, who will, but perhaps my voice, shaped by unique experiences and blessed by exposure to gifted teachers of God's word, will be the only one heard by that man or woman who most needs God at this moment. And if he or she can't, or won't hear me, then who? Could it

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Heroes of Faith

I spent the weekend with a fascinating woman: my mother! Friday was her birthday. An amazing feat for a woman who was a very sickly baby, whose own mother died a few weeks after my mother's birth. The granddaughter, daughter, and mother of preachers, she has spoken herself at college Bible lectureships and women's seminars (In fact, she will speak on one in April). She loves the Lord and his church deeply, still taking Bible courses at a school of biblical studies as well as teaching the Bible.
I also was able to worship with and lead singing at a great congregation: the Ridgedale church of Christ, a very conservative, racially integrated congregation where my father preached for seventeen years. One of the highlights was speaking again with a retired African-American preacher who worships there. William McCleskey preached for over fifty years. In the past, he and I have rotated preaching and leading singing for one another at nursing homes. Despite poor health, he too retains a brave spirit and a deep love for Christ. His grandson is one of the deacons at Ridgedale.
I also spent a few minutes with Clyde Holder, who was an elder there for over sixty-five years. A man of vision and compassion, he is one of a few men who spring to my mind when I hear discussion about biblical qualifications for elders.
I mention these three because they are among my heroes of faith - people who kept their focus on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. They each have directed many others to the Lord and have shown in their own conduct what it means to walk in his steps. May they know health and happiness; it may be selfish, but I still need them.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

When Both Sides Are Wrong

In a Bible discussion last night, my friend Randy observed that sometimes church problems resemble the insurrection attempted by Korah the Levite and his Reubenite friends Dathan and Abiram against Moses in Numbers 16. Korah and friends challenge the authority of Moses and doubt whether God really backs him. Probable motives of the rebellion were Korah's wanting to be high priest of Israel and the Reubenites wanting political power. Moses and his brother Aaron had both. In response to Randy's statement, I suggested that often church squabbles, local or national, might be better described as Dathan versus Abiram - both sides are wrong. Perhaps one side advocates an unorthodox position; the other responds with personal attacks. From there the fracas escalates as each side bombards the other with increasingly vicious accusations, and one (or both) moves into increasingly questionable doctrinal positions as its proponents (subconsciously?) try to distance themselves from their attackers. What really makes it tragic is that all involved may love Jesus and his church dearly. They want nothing so badly as to advance the cause of Christ in the world. Everyone involved may be warm (to those who agree with them), friendly, highly moral, and biblically knowledgeable. But their behavior, to take an expression from 2 Corinthians chapter 2, emits the odor of death. While group members may cheer their champions, the rest of the world chokes on the rancid smell. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples," Jesus said in John 13, "if you love one another."

Monday, February 13, 2006

God's people

Some basic concepts of Christianity boggle my mind. There's the idea of God's becoming man, then dying as a substitute for the rest of humanity as a consequence of everyone else's misconduct. Then there's the resurrection a few days after the death, followed by a witnessed ascension into the skies. And the idea that a reenactment of death, burial, and resurrection occurs in a ritual called baptism which, when united with faith in Jesus being divine and the above being reality, makes us God's children (Read Romans 6:1-4 and Galatians 3:26,27, if you don't believe me). When one steps back and takes a hard look, one can understand why skeptics ridicule such ideas. They just do not fit into our everyday experiences. More seriously, the worldview of many people precludes such events. They have not observed such things themselves, and do not believe anyone else has.
In Hebrews chapter 8, a passage from the prophet Jeremiah is quoted as having been actualized in Christians. "I will be their God and they will be my people," reads one line. "My people," says the creator of the universe. Other biblical passages assert even more, suggesting a noble destiny of service intended by God from the beginning of time. Still, "my people" keeps reverberating within my mind. God cares, and claims these people.
That relationship carries great responsibility on our end. When my brothers and I left the house for a date or to travel, our father would always say, "Remember who you are." What we did or said would reflect on other members of the family. God's people hear similar words: "Be holy, as I am holy." It's tough sometimes just living up to a human family's legacy. How does one live up to being one of God's people? "I will forgive their wickedness," God says, "and will remember their sins no more"(Hebrews 8).
God's not an overly permissive parent. Responsibility and accountability are required. But God possesses, loves, forgives his people. He does not remember what he forgives. That ranks right up there in hard-to-believeability with executing God's son and resurrection. He does not remember what he forgives!
That's good news. No, that's great news!
Let's spread it.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Let God's People Hear His Word...In Their Own Language

During the 1530's, a man named William Tyndale was burned at the stake. His last words were, "God, open the King of England's eyes." His crime was translating the Bible into English. Such a charge sounds bizarre now. But after hundred years of the Bible being read at church services exclusively in Latin, translating it into the languages used by people in everyday life struck some as blasphemous. Latin sounded "sacred" and "holy." Ironically, the major Latin translation which had been used was the Vulgate, a term which comes from the Latin word for common. When the Bible had been translated into Latin from Greek and Hebrew in the fourth century, it had been because Latin had become the language of the common people. When the books and letters that comprise the New Testament were originally penned, their authors used a form of Greek now known as Koine, again "common." The New Testament was not written in a sacred-sounding style. It reached out to the common person with good news of God's word. Tragically, and I suspect most people will find this hard to believe, some still try to suppress the use of Bible translations in the common language of the people, clinging to Bible translations that they believe sound more "sacred." Whether it is the King James Version (which itself was originally attacked as too common) or the Catholic Douay version or (even now) the Latin Vulgate, lovers of these translations ascribe to them a holiness that transcends other translations. The King James Version had a profound, positive affect on English language and literature. Phrases from it passed into everyday street usage. But the average person on the street today, despite loud protests by a few to the contrary, does not understand parts of it because the language is not the dialect he speaks. In a high school English class last week, I heard students trying to read from a piece of literature that was contemporary with the King James Version. They frankly stumbled badly in pronunciation and comprehension. If you believe God inspired the Bible, and I do, the fact that his Holy Spirit revealed it in common street Greek has a profound significance. It means that God wants everyone, even the poorly educated, to be able to understand his Word without requiring years of training or acculturation. I'm not talking about thorough appreciation of intricate doctrines here, just being able to recognize and understand the words. A friend of mine, who prefers to use the King James Version, bought a book that identified archaic words and expressions used in that translation because he wanted to be sure he understood it (a noble motive, by the way, and I applaud him). The book was over five hundred pages long. The translators of the King James Version, all members of the church of England and under precise royal instruction to translate certain words in certain ways, in the original preface noted that even the meanest translation of the Bible was God's Word. Most modern translations have teams of translators from various church backgrounds that serve as a system of checks and balances against one group's or one king's priorities damaging the translation. They want the common person to hear God's Word. That, I believe, is what God wants. So sit down, and read a chapter from the King James Version, then read that same passage in the English Standard Version, the New International Version, or some other popular translation. Which is easier to understand? There are other other issues; most translations (even the King James Version) have some glitches at points. Books like How We Got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot, 3rd edition Baker Book House, 2003, and The English Bible from KJV to NIV by Jack P. Lewis give insights by conservative scholars into history and accuracy in the Bible translation process.
My main point is this: The Bible was meant to be read in the common language of the people. God's Word needs to be heard and understood in an age where a network news program asked this week, "What has happened to manners in America?" Don't let poorly informed tradition slow the spread of God's Word. Use, and encourage the use of, the Bible in an accurate contemporary translation.

Friday, January 27, 2006


Reconciliation - what a worthy goal! God has given it as a ministry to Christians - the focus of our portfolios as his ambassadors to the world. So says 2 Corinthians 5, or is that passage using an editorial "we," in which case, only the apostle Paul and his colleagues would be the reconciling ambassadors. Certainly the concepts apply to the apostle, but by extension to those he converted, and to Christians today. In a letter to his protege Timothy, he charged him to teach faithful men, who would teach others also. The chain of reconciliation extends beyond the original circle of disciples.
Reconciliation is hard! It means laying aside pride and pain caused by the past. Our passage discusses reconciliation to God, which falls in line with what Jesus said about loving God with all one's heart, soul, and strength. He called that the greatest command. But doing it God's way? I like the way I'm doing it now. Why should I change? I must change if I want to survive spiritually. That's a challenge - pushing out of the net formed by habit and laziness to break through to one who waits laughing with arms extended. The second command - loving one's neighbor as oneself - requires reconciliation also. Sometimes, that's even harder, when the rift spans months in a marriage, years in a family, decades in a church, or centuries in ethnic struggle. After all, we can't see God and we may tell ourselves we've reconciled to him when we really hope he's reconciled to the way we are. It's hard to hide when it's a person or a group standing in front of us, with fear, distrust, or even hate drowning us. Reaching out, risking rejection, knowing perhaps that reconciliation may not succeed, that sometimes physical or emotional survival requires taking different paths. And knowing, if we take separate paths, that a sense of something lost will endure, an awareness of a possible parallel universe in which sacrifice, dialogue, and negotiation produced reunion.
God has given us a ministry of reconciliation.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Comforting God's People

Stress! In the midst of change, change, and more change, God's people call out for rest. Things change. That's a constant. But sometimes change damages, sends someone away, offends. Pray, search the word, remember the people for whom Christ died...and for whom there remains a rest.
Some people and churches change by the minute...Christian chameleons. Others refuse to change, call themselves trees planted firmly by the water, often deserve the designation "fossils." Perhaps the truth lies elsewhere, where people hear the Lord's voice in his word and hear also the plaintive cries of people clamoring for a message of hope they can their language, people longing for stability but needing also freshness. Comfort my people, says the Lord (Isaiah 40).