Pop Always Said…

It’s been six and half years since my step-father, Lawrence, passed away.  He’s the only Dad I ever knew.

Funny the things that stick in your memory.  Some of his sayings run through my mind:

  • “Well, kiss my foot.”
  • “I’m kicking, but not very high.”
  • “They will start biting in a minute.”
  • “It’s not dark yet.  We can work a little longer.”
  • “Always open the door for a lady.”
  • “We need some rain – we must not be paying the preacher enough.”
  • “Keep looking.  It’s around here somewhere.”
  • “Eat some more, or it will go to waste.”
  • “Go get some gas at the barn for yourself; and fill up your sister’s car while you’re there.”

In every one of those sayings, he was expressing a conviction:

  • “Well, kiss my foot” – I may have just fallen out of tangerine tree, but that’s no reason to start cussing.
  • “I’m kicking, but not very high” – I’m old and I’ve got pain, but I’m still here.
  • “They will start biting in a minute” – If you do what you love (like fishing), there’s never enough time.
  • “It’s not dark yet.  We can work a little longer” – Don’t quit working till the job is done, even if you have to push a little harder.
  • “Always open the door for a lady” – Habits of courtesy and kindness pay off.
  • “We need some rain – we must not be paying the preacher enough” – You need someone to pray for God to intervene.
  • “Keep looking. It’s around here somewhere” – don’t give up.  Persist.  You will find it only if you are looking.
  • “Eat some more, or it will go to waste” – Waste equals being a bad steward.
  • “Go get some gas at the barn for yourself; and fill up your sister’s car while you’re there” – If you are doing for yourself, take time to something for somebody else.

Your Father in Heaven has some sayings that express His convictions too:

  • “I am the God of grace and compassion.”
  • “Love your enemies, do good to those who push against you.”
  • “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Only if you stay attached to me to bear the fruit I designed you to bear.”
  • “By grace you are saved, not by anything you do, so you can’t brag about it.  I paid the price for you to be forgiven.”
  • “I loved the whole world so much I gave my one and only Son so everyone who believes in him can have a forever life worth living.”
  • “Peace I give to, my peace I leave with you.  Not peace like the world gives (temporary).  Be encouraged – I have overcome the world.”

Your Father’s words to you are worth remembering, too.

What Will You Get Jesus for Christmas?

Making the list starts for us before Thanksgiving.  We add to it as we have conversations with the children.  Shopping begins in earnest after Thanksgiving.  There are web-sites to check out and stores to dash into.  Each day seems to bring something new to the list.  Sometimes, it is a new item added by one of the children.  Sometimes, it is the name of someone we forgot.

By mid-December we’ve made good headway.  Amazon should be delivering.  A special trip or two is scheduled to get things we can’t find in town.  We’ve gotten on a first name basis with the cashiers at Simpsons.

Two days before Christmas there is a final flurry of activity.  Stocking must be stuffed, last minute items purchased.  Someone must make the frightening trip to Walmart on Christmas Eve.

Gift giving starts for us on Christmas Eve and goes through Christmas night.  It’s a wonderful twenty four hours of expressing love by giving gifts.

It struck me the other day, that one name is missing from our list:  Jesus.  Seems strange doesn’t it?  After all, it is His birthday.

Granted, Jesus is hard to buy for.  What do you get the person who has everything?  I mean, literally, everything!  He already owns the cattle on a thousands hills and stars by the thousands.  What would He want anyway?

He has a list detailing what He wants. It is found in the book of Micah:  “What does He require of you, O man, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?”

This Christmas, give Jesus the gift of doing justice.  This is about more than being fair; it means treating each other with respect, standing for what is right, and doing right even when it costs you.

This Christmas, give Jesus the gift of loving mercy.  When someone offends you or hurts you, forgive them.  Give them grace.  If possible, keep the relationship intact.  Love people when it is hard to love them.

This Christmas, give Jesus the gift of walking humbly with Him.  Admit to Him you have no idea how to live your life.  Ask for His help and guidance every day.  Walk closely with Him so you learn to be like Him.  Stop where He would stop.  Walk past temptations as He does. Climb mountains with Him.  Rest in the valleys with Him.

This Christmas, the best gift to give Jesus is to give Him yourself.  He delights in you and will love the gift you present.  Ironically, the gift you give Him will also be the greatest gift you give yourself.

How to Start the Week After Thanksgiving

 

Most of us come to the Monday after Thanksgiving with looming dread.  We’ve been on a four day orgy of food, shopping, and football.  People who really have it together also have their house decorated for Christmas.  But Monday comes knocking relentlessly, telling us that school has to be finished, projects put on the shelf must be brought off and pushed to completion, and deadlines still loom.  Monday has a way of squeezing gratitude out of our souls.

You and I need to rebel against letting Monday rob us of gratitude.  Everything you were thankful on Thursday is still in effect:

  • God is still in control.  He is gracious and kind, forgiving and patient. Aren’t you grateful?
  • You are still alive. Your life is gift, every day of it.  Aren’t you grateful?
  • Not only are you alive, you still have mission, a purpose.  God made you for a reason.  That reason still stands.  Aren’t you grateful?
  • God is putting people in your life to care for you and for you to care for.  Aren’t you grateful?
  • Our good God made the world to have colors like orange, yellow, and red.  Autumn is the time to remember to thank God for unnecessary colors.  Aren’t you grateful?
  • Our good God also made food taste good.  Think about it.  He could have made everything taste like liver.  Instead, He made: sugar to sweeten tea with; guavas; ribs; steak; potatoes that can be mashed, baked, or boiled; oranges; tangerines; peas; chocolate; chicken that can be baked, fried, or grilled; butter; bread; corn on the cob; broccoli; tomatoes; cucumbers; and my sister’s coconut cream pie.  Aren’t you grateful?
  • Our good God made you so you would recognize a loving touch, be wary of an angry voice, and want to smile at babies.  Aren’t you grateful?
  • For both Gators and Gamecocks, God made next year a hope.  Aren’t you grateful?

The point of this is to remind you to stay grateful my friends.  Thanksgiving isn’t just a day; it’s a way of life.

Thanksgivings I have Known…

Every Thanksgiving since 1937, the Smiths have gathered in the woods to share a Thanksgiving meal.  I was always told that Granny Smith didn’t want to have Thanksgiving at the house that year, since Grandpa Smith had passed away.  Thus the tradition was born.

I remember when I was five, six, and seven, running around with my cousins Kelly, Ned, Steve, and Dennis, and my brother Steve.  We would shoot BB guns at each other and make forts in the palmettos.  Our mothers would yell us to come and eat and we have to wait behind the “old people” – Aunt Neta, Aunt Nell and Uncle Dow, Aunt Mewie, Aunt Iris and Uncle J.N., Aunt Ouida and Uncle Kelly, and Granny Clemons to go through the line first.  Back then children went last.  Stretched out on the 40 foot table were every imaginable dish, the pride of women who knew who to cook without recipes.  At the very end, there was a big pot of Swamp Cabbage, a true Florida Cracker favorite.  Our hope as children was that there would be something left (there was always plenty).

By the time we were teenagers, these same cousins had progressed to bird hunting and hog hunting.  Being 16, 17, and 18, we were all indestructible.  We would hog hunt all night the night before Thanksgiving, then bird hunt Thanksgiving morning, and then deer hunt that afternoon before going back out to hog hunt again.  Some of the best times of my life were chasing through the woods after a pack of dogs, looking for hogs by moonlight.

Tragedy struck in our twenties.  Dennis died in a freak accident and Steve died in a car wreck.  We moved on, got married, and started having children.  Somehow, I became the uncle/cousin who drove all the kids around in the jeep to give the adults a break.

I only missed Thanksgiving in the woods once – Gina was due to give birth to Abram on Thanksgiving Day so we had to miss that year (he was a week late, so we could have gone, I suppose).  I’d have to say the thrill of seeing my first born was worth missing my only Thanksgiving in the woods.

I knew there was a changing of the guard the year Uncle Tiny, 37 years my senior, told me to give the prayer one Thanksgiving.  That was also one of the first years we realized something wasn’t quite right with my mother, and she began to descend into the nightmare of Alzheimer’s.

We’ve kept a book for almost 50 years now, that everyone signs.  My childish first grade handwriting appears in 1965.  There is my mother’s name, her signature strong and sure.  Flip a few pages and Gina’s name shows up in 1985.  She met all my family and still married me.  Year by year my children wrote their names; now, Hannah does calligraphy for the date, the year, and the weather.

Lately, we’ve started taking pictures of each generation.  What is startling to me is I now belong in the oldest generation (let me hasten to add I am the youngest –by far- in that generation).   We span four generations; Smiths are nothing if not fertile.

In all these years, I can’t say that anybody really stressed giving thanks.  We didn’t do the things I hear other families do, like go around and describe what we are thankful for.  With over a 120 people there, that would take too long.  But each Thanksgiving I feel a deep sense of gratitude for God’s blessings.  Coming back to the same place year after year reminds me that God has been present and working in my life, whether I was five or fifty-five.  He has given me great grace.  I see the great grace He has given to so many: cancer cured, children born, true love found, broken hearts mended.  He has carried us, all of us, each year, each decade.

This Thanksgiving, don’t just think about what God has done this year.  Think about how He has been faithful to you and your family every year of your life – and thank Him for all His grace.

Random Post Election Thoughts …

This week, after this divisive election, some of the random thoughts that have popped into my brain:

  • I was proud to stand in line peaceably for an hour to vote.  No one threatened anyone.  There were no guns.  No one looked over my shoulder  There was joy in getting ready to express our convictions and a respect for others.
  • God has trusted me to be an American.  Most of the people in the world do not get to choose their national leadership.  We do.  What an amazing privilege.
  • I feel uncomfortable with some pastors and young ministerial students who are exalting in the election results.  How do you reach all the people Jesus loves if you throwing election results in their face?  I remember what Paul wrote in Romans 15:2, “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.”  I don’t want to do anything to put a barrier between someone and Jesus.  I want to find ways to build up my neighbor so he or she finds Jesus.
  • I loved seeing so many people post on Facebook they were praying for our country.  I think we need to pray for our leaders and our country every day.
  • It is a hard thing to be a humble expert.  Maybe some of the good to come out of this election will be for the political class to be humbled again (see Dewey versus Truman, 1948).
  • I feel sad for people who find the meaning of life in how their candidate does.  It means their life is too small; they need to find their purpose in Jesus.
  • On Wednesday I had one person approach me saying “We won!”  Another came up to me and said, “We lost!”  My first thought for both was, “What do you mean ‘we,’ Kemosabi?”  I hope this is a sign that as a pastor I was able to teach the truth of Jesus.  It’s not my job to tell anyone how to vote; it is my job to tell you to pray and trust God.
  • I see many people calling for the hate to stop.  Hate doesn’t stop until it is pushed out by the love and grace of Jesus.  That’s why you often see the irony of those calling for the end of hate hating the people who hate.  It’s the circle of sin, the story of human beings.  It is why the intervention of Jesus is crucial.
  • Be careful before you say the last eight years or the next four years were or are “god-forsaken.”  Our God can work good in all things and in all places.  He used Kings like Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus to do His will.  Someday we will see how He used President Bush, Obama, and Trump.
  • Don’t cut off friendships because of politics.  Remember, “a friend loves at all times (Proverbs 17:17).
  • My dog was pretty content on Wednesday.  I think he trusts me to take care of him no matter who the president is.  My dog is teaching me to trust my master to take care of me, no matter who the president is.

The Morning After …

The morning after the election, according to Facebook:

  • Best line: “What are we going to talk about now?”
  • Most un-Christ like response: “I’m so happy!  I hate Hillary.”
  • Best sentiment: “I didn’t vote for Trump, but now he is my President.”
  • Best perspective: “I woke up periodically through the night and checked in with my Heavenly Father.  Every time I checked, He was still on His throne.  I’m good.”
  • Most repeated phrase: “One nation, under God…”
  • Line that made me smile: “If you vowed to move to Canada if Trump won, please contact me.  I’m a realtor.”
  • Best reminder: “Whatever happened to ‘They will know we are Christians by our love?’”
  • Best promise: “I did not want Trump to be my President, but I will not demean, insult, or belittle him.”
  • Best reality check: “This election did nothing to change the spiritual needs of our country.  Keep praying.”
  • Best chill pill:  “Xanax prescriptions up 2700% Nationwide tomorrow.”
  • Best sudden shift: “Who’s ready for Christmas?”
  • Best stock tip: “By stock in U-Haul.”
  • Best reminder from a pastor friend of mine: “Best news of the week: We baptized 6 new believers Sunday!”
  • Best question: “Is this what Truman vs. Dewey felt like?”
  • Most frightening thought: “Florida legalizes medical marijuana.”  (knowing people in my home state, I’m not sure this is a good idea).
  • Post to stake your life on: “No matter who is President, Jesus is still my King.”

Seven Things Every Jesus Follower Needs to Do on November 9th…

 

On March 23, 2015, Ted Cruz became the first major candidate to declare for the 2016 Presidential race.  On November 8, Election Day, 595 days later, this election cycle will end.  I don’t know about you, no matter who is elected, part of my reaction will be relief that it is over.

Wednesday morning, November 9th, we will wake up with a new leader for our country.  Jesus followers will wake up with the same King of Kings and Lord of Lords as their ultimate leader.  So what will we need to do on November 9th?

  1. We need to pray for our new President, that he or she will be wise and humble.  We need to pray God will speak directly to her or him about the size of the task ahead of them.  We need to ask God to direct his or her paths and remind him or her not to lean on their own understanding.
  2. We need to pray for the candidate that loses.  As Jesus followers, we need to care for their souls.  Pray they will sense the presence of God in their loss, and that this loss will cause them to seek Jesus.  Pray they will gracious in defeat and be given words from the Holy Spirit that will unite, not divide.
  3. We need to pray for the healing of our country.  Politics is always divisive, but this election has seemed to be particularly injurious.  Pray that people will regain perspective; that they will seek common good for one another.
  4. We need to demonstrate our love for each other as Jesus followers.  Make it a point to love someone who follows Jesus who voted differently than you.  Let them know your care for them in Jesus is greater than any political division.
  5. We need to continue to speak God’s truth, even when an election is not on the line.  We need to declare life is precious; people are responsible for their lives; justice is for all; the poor need care; those who are foreigners need hospitality; prisoners need the presence of Jesus; and we need to take care of God’s creation.  We need not only to talk about these things, but do these things.  And no, God’s truth doesn’t fit into some neat political package.  God is inconvenient that way.
  6. We need to be salt and light.  God put us here in this time to make an impact on the world.  We do that best by being different from the world.  People often misunderstand this and think this is a call for Jesus followers to be weird.  Not at all.  It is call for us to add flavor (salt) and to give a different model of how to live (light).  We want to live so people say, “I’m not sure I believe in Jesus, but I sure would like to have Jesus followers work for me.”
  7. Most of all, we need to follow Jesus.  There is no way for God to have written every instruction we need in His word.  We need to pray for guidance and trust the Lord will speak.  We need to listen to whispers from God and follow Holy Spirit nudges.  We need to be people of courage who are willing to be misunderstood because we do weird things like love our enemies.

I’m really not worried about the election.  Jesus told me to cast all my worries on Him.  My job is to listen to Him and follow.

4 Things Jesus Taught Me at the Florida-Georgia Game

My son and I had the opportunity to go to the Florida Georgia Game in Jacksonville this past weekend.  I couldn’t help but be aware of some things Jesus was teaching me when we walked through the crowd and sat in the stands:

  1. A lot of people live for college football so they have an excuse to party and drink.  I’m not judging, but I couldn’t help but wondering if for some, this was their church:  There was fellowship (tailgating); singing (“We are the Boys from Old Florida…” plus some Georgia song I didn’t catch); praise (“Did you see that tackle!”); and even a sermon or two (“That coach ought to run wide right, there’s an room on the edge”).  I’m not saying church ought to be more like a ball game, but there was  lot more passion at “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” than in some churches I’ve been in.
  2. If you lead, people will have opinions of how you are doing.  Most of the critics have never played the game or coached a down.  So don’t let the critics call your plays.
  3. I saw a lot of women dressed in a way to highlight their sexuality.  I could sense Jesus wanting to speak to them, “You are so much more than your looks.  Don’t equate your value with male approval.”  I hope they could hear His gracious voice.
  4. Jesus loves everyone in the stadium, no matter which team they pulled for.  To be His follower, I need to love everyone in the stadium too, even the drunk guy in front of me who won’t sit down.  Loving people isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

 

Is the United States a Christian Nation?

I hear people declare, “This is a Christian Nation!”  Like most sweeping statements, we have to push for clarity.  What do we mean when we say “Christian Nation?”

Debate rages back and forth about whether our founders were all Christians.  Were they?  Only Jesus knows.  What we can say for sure is they shared a worldview that drew from scripture.  They read the Bible and saw there was a God who worked in history.  They had a sense that God controlled outcomes and His favor was required for human success.  Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…” comes from scripture.

We also have to say our founders had blind spots, as do we all.  Jefferson, for example, was willing to accept that people of other racial backgrounds did not have as many rights as white, English speaking, Anglican males.  Lest we pick merely on the Southerners, New Englanders were willing to profit from the slave trade, no matter what was preached on Sunday.  Being influenced by the Bible did not and does not automatically make a nation Christian.

In the middle 1800’s, there arose in American thinking the idea that God had a unique mission for the United States.  Unlike the Old World, Americans were a new chosen people meant to usher in a new Messianic age.  Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were extreme forms of this thinking.  This idea caught hold in conservative circles, that God had chosen America as the “new Israel.”

While there is no doubt God has blessed our country and given us perhaps more than any other nation in history, there is no trustworthy revelation that demonstrates God has ever made a salvation covenant with the United States.  Since the New Testament, God’s salvation covenant is with those who claim Jesus as Savior and follow Him.  Thus, our country is not immune from the consequences of our actions or sins.  God may choose to bless, use, or punish any country.  A country may be given opportunities and blessings, but that does not make a nation “Christian.”

In the 1950’s there again rose the idea that United States was “one nation, under God.”  These words were inserted into the pledge of allegiance in 1954; “In God we trust” was made the official motto of the United States in 1956.  One factor driving these changes the anti-Communist fervor of the times.  The reasoning went “If Communists don’t believe in God, by golly, we are going to claim Him.”

The 1950’s were an exceptional time in American history.  Church attendance was at an all-time high; there was a shared Judeo-Christian moral code of conduct; and conformity was prized in culture at large.  Oddly, there was a huge growth in Christian institutions, but that did not equate to Christians living counter-cultural lives.  God was more of “cause” instead of a relationship.  Jesus told us you can say “Lord, Lord” but that doesn’t mean you know Him.  Making God into our motto does not make us a Christian nation.

So is the United States a Christian nation?  The answer to the question is the same as it has always been:  Only if Jesus followers follow Jesus.  When Jesus followers love our neighbors, love our enemies, forgive those who stand against us, deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Him, we have the chance to be yeast in our nation.  We can be the mustard seed that flourishes and provides refuge.  We can be the people who have found a relationship with God through Jesus is worth more than any country can ever offer.

In this era, it is not the label of “Christian Nation” that matters.  It is the Jesus Followers in a nation, that do His words, that make a difference.

Alice Drive At 60…

 

On October 21, 1956, some very brave people gathered at Alice Drive Elementary School, believing God called them to start a church in what was then the western edge of Sumter.  Dr. W. R. McLin, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Sumter preached the first sermon, “Upon this Rock.”  In the excitement of starting the new church, no one had thought to get something suitable for offering plates.  In those days, men commonly wore hats, so literally at the time of the offering, they passed the hat.

In their excitement, they choose the name “Alice Drive Baptist Church,” assuming they would be able to purchase land from the city of Sumter on Alice Drive.  The property they had their eye on was sold to other interests, and the church purchased property at 109 Miller Road instead. From early on in our history, Alice Drive has been confusing people in Sumter!

Those early days were filled with challenges of calling Francis Batson as first pastor, building the first building, and taking care of the needs of the new growing congregation.  In the background, there was always tension over the civil rights question and whether the new church should be open to people of all races.  The church finally settled this in 1977, declaring that Alice Drive would be a church for everyone who came, regardless of race.

For years the church struggled over issues of space and growth.  Dr. Bert Welch, the fourth pastor, led the church to begin a second worship service, to provide additional room.

In 1994, I became pastor.  I felt like God wanted ADBC to reach people and live up to her full potential.  Two years after I came, we celebrated our 40th anniversary.  We were again facing a space crisis – too little room, and too many people.

In 1998, averaging 400 in worship, the church made the bold decision to relocate.  Property was purchased at the intersection of Wise Drive and Loring Mill Road and plans for a new building were drawn.  The church needed room immediately, however. We moved worship services to USC- Sumter’s Nettle’s auditorium in 1999.

On Mother’s Day, 2001, we moved to our present location at 1305 Loring Mill Road.  The church continued to grow.    We celebrated our 50th anniversary with a campaign to provide more space.  Economic uncertainty and stalled growth caused us to miss our goals.  But God was faithful; He provided a way for us to get the space we needed at half the cost.  Additional parking was added in 2009, the Administration building was obtained from Shaw AFB in 2011 and the Venue was built in 2012.

In 2013, we began Monday night worship, unique in South Carolina, for those who can’t or won’t come on Sunday.

I celebrated 20 years as pastor in 2014.  Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine God would place me here for 20 years.

Now on the verge of turning 60, we are poised to become a multisite church with the launch of our Pocalla location in February 2017.   But I believe there is more for us.  God is calling us forward to embrace opportunities to tell people about Jesus and to help them take their next step.

I’ve been part of our 40th anniversary, when we were a church of 450; our 50th, when we were a church of about 1,000; and now, our 60th, when we are a church of 1,500.  I believe with all my heart that our best years are ahead of us.

I know Sumter needs all kinds of churches, and I pray good for all gospel preaching churches.  But I also feel deep in my bones that God is telling us that He needs a church like ADBC in Sumter and in other parts of South Carolina.  It’s not because we are special; it is because He has chosen us to help as many people as possible take their next step toward Jesus Christ.