Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Worst Sermon Ever Heard

Anyone who’s tried to preach has had the experience of a message that went all wrong.  I’ve had a few.  I’ve read the wrong scripture.  I’ve suffered a few embarrassing slips of the tongue (don't ask).  I’ve told a story or two that seemed like a good idea in my head, but crashed and burned in the worship service (really don't ask). 

No one hits a home run every time in the pulpit, but I believe that the worst sermon ever heard comes from the pew (yours and mine) when we fail to take our place in God’s house on the Lord’s Day.  I know that life is complicated.  I know that our culture doesn’t care about Sunday worship and offers countless competing and conflicting events.  But think about what you are saying when your place in God’s house is empty: 

Forget the Sabbath!  I’ll keep it for myself.

I follow Jesus, but only part-time!

My children don’t need to learn about Jesus and His love for them. 

Many things in my life are just more important to me than God.

The church doesn’t need my help—they’re doing fine!

I have nothing to thank God for this Sunday. 

My teenager knows it all about friendship, dating, college life, and dealing with temptation. 

Lost people don’t need my example to lead them to the place where the gospel is preached and God’s love is shared. 

Jesus is the Lord of my life—when I have nothing else to do!

Pretty bad preaching, don’t you think?  We’re called to do better.  Make the message of your life a positive invitation to find life in Jesus Christ and live for Him. 

Sunday’s coming.  Good luck with your sermon.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Right Place at the Right Time

With all of the conversation about the eclipse, the sun, moon and Earth lining up perfectly to create an awe-inspiring result, I've been thinking about how God works in our lives to line things up for amazing results.  Let me tell you about a time when God worked in my life in a way that still boggles my mind.  

I was a seminary student in Wake Forest, NC.  I had completed two years of my three year Master’s degree.  I was just a year away from graduation and, perhaps, gainful employment.  As my second year of studies was winding down, the time had come to sign up for fall classes.  That’s when something very strange happened.  I hit a wall.  I couldn’t bring myself to sign up for classes.  I enjoyed school and had usually done pretty well in my studies, but, for reasons I didn’t fully understand, I simply couldn’t sign up.  I decided that what I needed was some time to do ministry instead of studying ministry.  Guided by that thought, I applied to several hospitals that offered a residency in Clinical Pastoral Education.  I hoped I would be accepted, serve and learn for a year, then return to school and finish my course work.  After a few weeks, I was invited to interview for the chaplaincy program at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center.  My interview went pretty well, but the chaplains were curious as to why I wanted to do the program before finishing my seminary work.  I answered them as best I could, telling them I wanted to serve more than study for a year. 

After a few long days of waiting had passed, my telephone rang and I was offered a position in the program.  I later found out that the lead chaplain wasn’t exactly sure why he chose me.  He usually didn’t accept students who hadn’t finished their seminary studies but, as he said it to me, “Somehow I knew you were supposed to be in my program.”  I wasn’t sure why he chose me either, at least, not yet.

I’d worked in the hospital for a week or two when my family received some devastating news.  My father had a brain tumor the doctors could do nothing to treat.  He had, at best, a few months to live.  When I heard the doctor’s report, two bigger-than-life feelings filled my heart. 

One of them, of course, was grief.  I loved my dad and certainly wasn’t ready to let him go.  He was only 54 years old.  After working hard his entire life, he wouldn’t see a day of retirement.  He wouldn’t see any of his children married.  He’d never hold a grandchild.  Barry hadn’t even graduated from high school.  Though he’d suffered through my early preaching efforts, he wouldn’t hear me preach as a pastor.  My world had suddenly been turned upside down. 

But grief was not alone in my soul.  Beneath the howling winds and crashing waves was an awareness I couldn’t escape.  Through an amazing series of circumstances I couldn’t explain, God had put me exactly where I needed to be. 
Instead of being five hours away in seminary and needing to drop out of classes to help my family, I was thirty minutes away from them and able to visit my father almost every day.  Linda was at Furman, less than an hour away from me.  Her love and support meant the world to me.  I had a wonderful support system in my coworkers at the hospital.  They were faithful friends who gave me listening ears and sympathizing tears.  I could worship at my home church, people I’d known and loved for a lifetime. 

I was heartbroken, to be sure, but I also knew in the depths of my soul that God had worked in an amazing way, lining so many things up perfectly for me to walk with my dad through his illness and help my family after his death.  

I believe that same great God is working in your life in that same great way.  This may be the perfect time for God to accomplish something amazing.  May you see how God is lining things up in your life.  

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Busy or Fruitful?

One of the stories which followed my parents throughout their married lives is one which took place at a choir social. Mom had mixed a churn of ice cream and dad sat on the back porch in a large circle of men, churning and talking. Soon the circle began to thin as the churning got hard, showing that the ice cream was ready. But dad just kept on churning. Finally, everyone but dad was gone and he decided that something must be wrong with the ice cream in his churn. He opened up the cylinder and looked inside. All of the ingredients were there, but he and my mom had forgotten one little thing – the dasher. He could have churned all night and not had any ice cream. He was doing something – but he wasn’t accomplishing anything.

We can easily confuse being busy with being effective. Doing something for God is not the same as accomplishing something for God. We can churn all the time but accomplish nothing because we don’t have a dasher, a purpose. We cannot measure our Christian lives by how busy we are, but by what purpose is guiding our lives.

One of my favorite stories about Jesus is found in Mark 1:29-39. Jesus is in Capernaum where He has taught the people gathered at the synagogue. He has healed a man tormented by an evil spirit, Simon’s mother-in-law, and many others. The whole town gathered at His door for Him to touch them, to help them, to heal them. Jesus is literally surrounded with opportunities to do good.  But listen to what happens next:

(Mark 1:35-38) Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!" Jesus replied, "Let us go somewhere else-- to the nearby villages-- so I can preach there also. That is why I have come."

Early the next morning, He gets away by Himself and prays. The disciples find Him and exclaim, “Everyone is looking for you! There is much to be done! You can be busy for the rest of the day!” But Jesus tells them that He will not go back to the good things He can do in Capernaum. Through prayer He has renewed His sense of purpose. He must walk away from the busyness of good things that He may do the most important thing – preaching the good news in other towns.

Jesus didn’t churn without a dasher.  He knew the difference between busyness and living with a God-given purpose. So must we. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

We Love You, Bobby Haley

I was honored to be one of the voices praising God for the life and ministry of Rev. Bobby Haley.

We’re here today, Bobby Haley, because we love you and praise God for your life. 

We love you, Bobby,
For being such a fan.  You loved your Alma mater, Mississippi College.  You kept up with the St. Louis Cardinals, often sporting a Cardinals baseball cap to let the world know where you stood.  Amid the roar of many Clemson Tigers, you crowed proudly for your Gamecocks.  You were never a fair-weather fan.  Your loyalty ran deeper than last season’s record or next season’s prospects.  You were just a fan. 

In that same spirit, you cheered for us.  When you chose us in friendship, you put on our colors and never took them off.  When we won, you celebrated with us.  When we lost, you helped us up, dusted us off, and gently coached us for our next challenge.  And you always believed we could win.  You loved us the way God loves us, Bobby, and that’s why we will always love you. 

We love you, Bobby,
For that childlike spirit you never allowed to grow old.  Life was always a gift, an adventure, a celebration for you.  That’s why your heart could so quickly connect with a VBS class of first graders or a room full of adults.  You had the freedom to read and teach the scriptures one minute, then gather a group around you to lead the congregation in “baby shark” or, my all time favorite, “Doo Be Dah.”  Even if I tried, I could never forget you in front of a church, saying, “Be doo be dah…” You helped us find the child within us and live as joyful beloved children of God. 

We love you, Bobby,
For being an overcomer.  Your life had a rough start.  You didn’t dwell on that and never talked about it, but you were dealt a pretty rotten hand.  But you played that hand masterfully enough to win.  You worked hard.  You welcomed Godly mentors into your life.  You got an education at Mississippi College and Southwestern Seminary.  You discovered your gifts and developed them for God’s kingdom.  You married a wonderful lady and began a beautiful partnership in marriage and ministry.  You welcomed children in the world and gave them a strong faith and sweet love.  We love you, Bobby, because your life teaches us that faith is the victory that overcomes. 

We love you, Bobby,
For making us into missionaries.  I’ll never forget you coming to my study in Greenville to ask permission to recruit a few people from your new church to complete that year’s roster for your Kentucky Mission Trip.  I answered, “Bobby, let me be sure I understand you.  You want to know if you can invite our people to do missions.  I think I can support that.”  You recruited five or six people that year who returned, with joy in their hearts, tears in their eyes, and a firm promise to return to Kentucky the next year.  Word spread.  Hallway conversations of “I want you to go with me to Kentucky this summer” grew the team.  Within a few years, you took fifty-five adults and youth, easily a tenth of the church family to Kentucky.  And once those people tasted the joy and felt the fulfillment of giving their lives to God’s work, they didn’t stop with Kentucky.  People came back home with a missionary calling to serve Christ in their community in new ways.  Others went to Africa and South America and Jamaica to help people in need and share God’s love.  Bobby, everywhere you went, in your low-key unassuming way, you made missionaries.  And I will always thank God for the way you shaped the lives of my sons.  Josh and Andrew made many trips to Kentucky because of you.  Those trips taught them the importance of service, the power of the gospel to cross cultures, and the great joy that comes from joining in Christ’s Great Commission.  They are better men because of you, Bobby Haley, and I love you for that. 

We love you, Bobby,
For seeing and celebrating the beauty and dignity of all people.  Some of God’s people do very good things in an absolutely awful way, with a spirit of Messianic condescension that resembles some kind of holy float in a Mardi Gras parade, riding through God’s world throwing out trinkets of help and attention to the needy crowds, then moving on.  But, Bobby, you were the polar opposite of that.  When you talked about the people you served, you spoke, not of how needy they were, but how rich they were in faith, in perseverance, in hospitality.  You didn’t talk about how much you could teach those you served, but how much you learned from them.  You never implied their worship was backward, but that is was passionate, artistic and reviving.  Bobby, you came to every man as his servant, not his savior.  And that’s why so many people in so many places are proud and grateful to call you friend. 

We love you, Bobby,
For showing us how to hurt faithfully.  You came into my life and my church at a time when your heart was deeply wounded.  But as I got to know you, I saw that you weren’t giving in to the temptation to be bitter.  You didn’t sit on the sidelines of God’s kingdom licking wounds, assigning blame or excusing yourself from God’s work.  You were honest about your pain, but you didn’t let pain compromise your calling.  You’ll never know how much your example has meant to me.  I’m sure many others could say the same. 

And especially today, we love you, Bobby,
For leaving us with no doubts about how your story ends.  You belonged to Jesus.  You were your Heavenly Father’s precious child.  You walked with God.  And now the grace that saved you, the grace that calmed your fears and saw you through every challenge of this life has seen you home.  I believe the angels sang “Pass it On” as you entered the city.

We’ll always love you, Bobby Haley.  And with a few "Kentucky flies" in our eyes, we’ll strive to shoulder the mantle of ministry you leave behind. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My Dog

Dee and Dixie in 2002
From the moment she came into our home, she was my dog.  Better said, in that wonderful and mysterious ways dogs bond to humankind, I was her guy.  Linda and I had, not long before, returned from a twentieth wedding anniversary trip to New York.  While we were gone, our golden retriever, Rusty, well up in years, had wandered away yet again, but this time did not come home.  Linda and the kids decided that we needed a replacement for the empty place Rusty left in our family circle, so, in September of 2002, they surprised me by bringing a beautiful buff rescued puppy home in our lilac Dodge Grand Caravan.  I was on the cordless phone when they pulled into the garage.  I was so struck by this little girl that I put the receiver on top of the van to free both arms for puppy holding.  I suppose we were all a bit ga-ga about the puppy.  That receiver rode around on top of the van for a week, drowning electronically in a rain storm.

I thought we might name this spunky chunky little ball of fur Daisy, but my children, especially my daughter, Elizabeth, who was into all things southern and cowboy-ish overturned my decision and proclaimed the name to be Dixie.  It stuck.

Asleep on the hearth amid stuffed animals
Though we enjoyed those first few weeks with Dixie living in the house (she only had one accident though a small puppy), she soon let it be known that she wanted to live as an outdoor dog.  We lived in Traveler's Rest in the foothills of South Carolina, on a two-acre lot that gave her plenty of room to roam and, more in line with her perceived life calling, patrol.  Dixie was a working dog, constantly on guard to protect her peeps.  Time and again, she brought us creatures she had captured and killed, other animals she deemed to be illegal aliens on her homestead.  Several times we found her near the house, proudly keeping vigil over the now lifeless body of a groundhog.  I found her gnawing on a deer leg one day, a left over, I hope, from a hunter field dressing his kill.  One day, I found a black cat in the yard, body intact but neck broken as though by a trained assassin.  With no collar or wallet on the cat, I decided to dispose of the body and avoid an investigation.

The boys and I were coming up the driveway in my green Mazda pickup truck.  Dixie ran alongside the truck to welcome us home then, inexplicably, ran in front of it.  The three of us heard that terrible thud of a truck wheel running over something, then saw Dixie rolling around beside the driveway in pain.  She had cut in front of the right front tire which broke both bones in her left front leg.  This was a Saturday, so we all jumped in the van and hurried to the veterinary emergency clinic.  Dixie was a brave girl, that is, until the surgeon entered the room.  Dixie tucked her head under Linda's arm to hide from him.  She gained a metal rod and several screws in that leg and I learned that even a rescued dog is far from free.  Dixie's bionic leg, as we called it, cost more than all four tires on my truck.

To be as brave as she was most of the time, Dixie had a unique assortment of fears, other than veterinary surgeons from Ireland.  She had no use for bodies of water.  We had a pond in front of our house in Traveler's Rest, but she would not stick a paw in it.  She was very afraid of thunderstorms and would scratch at the door and cry to come in when the thunder rolled.  Gunshots and fireworks were on her fear list as well.  She spent many a New Year's Eve and July 4th huddled up next to me.

She was not afraid of passing vehicles.  Dixie would sometimes follow our cars to the end of the driveway, then bark and lunge at cars coming by.  I don't know how she avoided being hit or causing an accident.  Luckily, neither happened.  She was, as she saw it, taking care of her family.

We often took walks at Green Valley's golf course which was practically across the street from our home.  Dixie loved to walk with us, but not on a leash.  She instinctively knew when we were preparing for a walk and would stay a safe distance away from us to avoid the humiliation of being tied to humans by a retractable nylon cord.  She would "run point" for us, going ahead of us to scout out the land and alert us to any possible dangers.  Luckily, the back nine at the golf course were pretty safe territory.

Dixie chasing Winston through the snow in Traveler's Rest
Dixie had a complicated relationship with our two other dogs, Minnie, the five-pound Pomeranian, and Winston, a goofy neurotic Silky Terrier.  Dixie loved to taunt them playfully, as an older sibling would do in the back seat of the family van, but she always worked to keep them safe.  One of my favorite pictures of Dixie is of her chasing Winston through the snow that covered our property one winter.  She looks as though she would eat him alive, but she mostly wanted to see him run. If she ever sensed the small dogs were in danger, Dixie would shepherd them toward the house and safety.

When our family moved to Columbia, Dixie retired from outdoor dog duty.  From the moment she left Traveler's Rest and her two-acre assigned territory, she considered herself to be an inside dog who left the comfort of the house only when necessary.  She wanted to be with us more and more.  She also discovered that the food inside was much better.

Dixie enjoyed fourteen years of good health.  We had noticed her slowing down, the increasing difficulty she had getting up and down, and the growing challenge of negotiating the stairs to go outside.  Her eyes were milky with cataracts and she was losing weight.  I tried to deny the fact her life was winding down, commenting that "in five years or so, we may have to make some tough choices."

The tough day came.  I've heard someone say that some decisions are difficult, but others are just painful.  I knew when Dixie was too sick and frail to continue her existence.  The choice wasn't difficult in that sense.  But how it hurt!  With the help of a good friend who is a vet, I made arrangements to carry her on her last ride with me on a Saturday morning. Linda and Andrew both asked me, "Don't you want someone to go with you?"  I answered, "She's my dog.  I need to do this."
As she lay on the examination table, relaxed by a sedative, perhaps sensing that her noble life was slipping away, Dixie picked her head up off of the table one last time and looked at me.  I took her beautiful head in my hands and held it until the life faded from her eyes and I knew her loving loyal spirit was gone.

I honestly don't know if we'll get another dog. Our children are grown and Linda and I are looking ahead to a season of life in which we'd like to be able to travel or annoy our kids in person without having to worry about boarding dogs or taking them along.  But this I do know:  I loved my Dixie.  The way Dixie and I belonged to each other added something sweet and sacred to my life.  Rest in peace, sweet girl.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Highs and Lows in the 50s

 Tomorrow, I turn 60 years old.  This might be a good day to think about the decade of my fifties, ten years of amazing highs and lows.  

After many years of basketball and tennis, I finally blew a disk in my back and, after months of trying everything from physical therapy to injections to procrastination, I gave in for surgery with a very positive outcome.  I returned to basketball and played until I was 52.  

Linda and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.  A dear friend gave us a week in their beach house at Isle of Palms.  Later, a group of church friends sent us on a two-week trip to Europe.  Linda sedated herself (with doctor-approved medications) to make the flight across the Atlantic.  We had an absolutely wonderful time.  Luckily, she brought me back.  Our 35th is coming this year. 

I've stood on happy holy ground with two of my children as they've found wonderful spouses.  Josh and Jen have made our family more complete.  

Our family has welcomed three little boys into the world who call me by my favorite title, "Papa."  

After decades of waiting for a better time, I've gotten serious about writing a book.  I published "The Stories of My Life," a collection of life experiences that have taught me how to live, have a second book, "Seeing in the Dark" that will be released this year by Smyth and Helwys Publishers, and a third book, "Messages from Mayberry" that I hope will be published soon.  

There have been many highs in the 50s.  I've also seen some lows.  

I survived a long season of depression that took a great toll on me and those who love me.  God has redeemed that dark valley by teaching me some truths I could learn no other way.  He's also opened doors for me to counsel and encourage a circle of fellow strugglers as they journey through their own dark times.  "Seeing in the Dark" is one of the ways I'm sharing what I've learned about the Christian faith and how it speaks to depression.  I'd never sign up for this tough class, but in it I learned a great deal.  

My family and I endured by far the greatest hurt we've ever experienced from a church.  I saw bad people rise to power, lies spread, confidences broken, and many good people sit by and watch.  I'm still waiting and praying for the first day I don't feel the pain of those days.  

But, as often happens, God does His best in the worst of times.  During my 50s I stepped into the pulpit and fell into the arms of a loving congregation who gave me a place to heal and to rediscover the joy of my calling.  I'll always love Parisview Baptist for the way they loved me back to life.  

God wasn't through redeeming those dark days.  He opened a door for me to serve a wonderful congregation that has welcomed and supported my ministry wholeheartedly.  I'm blessed to be the pastor and a member of God's family at St. Andrews Baptist Church.  

During my fifties, my parents' generation of our family circle grew smaller.  Several beloved uncles and aunts finished their journey. Two years ago, my Mom went home.  As difficult as seeing her in the nursing home sometimes was, and as much as I hurt to see many of her memories fade, she ended her earthly journey free and joyful and loving.  A good ending is a great thing.  
I lost many heroes in the past ten years: ministry mentors like Fred Craddock and Bobby Morrow, musical heroes like Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Joe Cocker.  Some days I feel as though I'm running out of heroes.  That, at times, is a lonely feeling. 

My home church closed its doors to combine congregations with another church.  I grieve the end of East Park Baptist Church, but am grateful its ministry in my life goes on and its ministry to Greenville has made a new beginning.  I was honored to be asked to return home to preach on one of the church's final Sundays at 12 Ebaugh Avenue.  

My dad passed away in 1981 at the age of 55.  His early death taught me that life is a gift and a miracle not to be taken for granted.  I receive each day with gratitude.  Through the highs and lows of my fifties, God has blessed me with a truly abundant life.  May God do the same for you. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sowing Seeds of Unity

In the past year, I’ve heard a great deal about a divisive spirit at work in our country.  If you’ve watched the news, you’ve, no doubt, heard about it, too. A number of people seem to have fallen prey to an “us” and “them” attitude toward others.  Stories abound of people saying and doing hateful things to people with whom they differ. 

I don’t deny these stories are true, but I want to bear witness to another movement I’ve observed lately.  Again and again, I have crossed paths with people who have gone out of their way to treat me with courtesy and respect.  Many of these people are different from me ethnically, religiously, or socioeconomically.  I have sensed, too often to write off to coincidence, how these very special people are refusing to accept that we must pick up sides and oppose each other.  They have seized opportunities to be my friends and neighbors. 

Linda and the Over-sized Print
Just a few days before Christmas, I was standing in a shopping center parking lot.  Leaning up against my “massive” Toyota Corolla was a framed print I had just picked up from the store, a Christmas gift for Linda.  What I had not considered, in buying this print and having it framed, was that it was too large to fit into any of the four doors or the trunk of my car.  I called my son, Andrew, and asked him to come to his dad’s rescue with his SUV.  While I waited, with numerous persons walking by, looking curiously at the man standing with a framed print beside his car in the parking lot, a lady with a very different ethnic heritage than mine approached me.  She had been waiting in her car for a shopper to emerge from the store when she observed my transportation dilemma.  She said, “Sir, my car is a bit bigger than yours.  I would be happy to take this picture to your home for you.”  I explained that my son was on the way, but that I was touched by her very thoughtful offer.  As we chatted, I learned that she was a woman of deep faith who can see the steeple of SABC from where she works.  I thanked her for being a Good Samaritan to a stranger whose taste in Christmas gifts is bigger than his car. 

Don’t underestimate the power of small expressions of respect, courtesy, concern, and helpfulness to build unity among people.  God’s people can and should lead the way in changing the spirit of the times and bringing people together.