Hitting Back…

When I was in first grade, I was scared of Joby Skitka.  It was his third time through the first grade, so he was bigger than the rest of us.  He got into fights, and was always winning when the teachers intervened.  He was sent to the office so often, there was a chair reserved outside the principal’s office with his name on it.

I told my brother I was scared of Joby.  Steve told me that if he hit me, I should hit him back.  Somewhere in my mind, there was a pause.  Though I was five, I learned in church that I was supposed to turn the other cheek.  I protested to Steve that Jesus told me I wasn’t supposed to hit back, but turn the other cheek.  Steve, whose theology had advanced to junior high level, told me “turn the other cheek” was for church, but “hitting back” was for school.

Maybe it’s this election, or maybe it’s just where we are as a people, but sometimes I feel like the whole world has gone crazy.  There are tragedies of black men being shot by police compounded by greater tragedies of protests that turn violent.  From Ferguson, to Minneapolis, to our backyard in Charlotte, people turn to violence to express feelings of resentment and powerlessness.  In one week, a lawyer shoots people in Houston because he dislikes his job, nine people are stabbed in Minnesota, and seven are stabbed in Boston.  No one is turning the other cheek.  Everyone is hitting back.

I watched the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  I know it’s politics, but it felt more like a first grade playground: “You attack me and I’ll attack you back.”  Couples come to see me about their problems and after a few moments and it feels just like the debate: “You hurt me, I’ll hurt you.”

When I got better teachers than my brother, I learned Jesus meant it when he said “Turn the other cheek.”  Not only did he say it, he did it.  Spat upon, beaten, nailed to a cross, he did not tap into all his power and hit back.   Somehow that day, Jesus’ refusal to hit back meant violence and hate were stopped in their tracks.  It took incredible strength for Jesus to turn the other cheek and not look back.  It always take more strength to not hit than to hit.

As we move into the post-Christian phase of our culture, we’ve lost this core teaching of Jesus.  We’re reverting to old ways of believing violence is the answer.  That’s why it is imperative those who follow Jesus live by His way, not the way of the this world.  That’s why we need to grow strength and trust.  We need strength to receive the blow and not strike back.  We need trust so we can believe God’s way is superior.  It’s time for the people of God to do something counter-cultural and not hit back like everyone else.

A couple of years ago in my hometown newspaper I saw this headline: “Man Killed by Grandson in Domestic Dispute.”  Turns out Joby Skitka was killed by his grandson in an argument over a knife.  It made me sad, for Joby and for his grandson.  They never learned Jesus’ way is the way to life; hitting back leads to death.

Have you learned Jesus way?

What Were You Thinking?

Have you ever looked at someone’s yard and wondered “what were they thinking?”

I saw old firetruck hooked up to a well with a hose to pump water to the house.  Wouldn’t an electric pump be easier?  In the South, you can’t drive more than five miles without finding a truck, car, or tractor up on blocks.  You can always tell by the height of the weeds around it how long it’s been there.  More than once, I’ve seen twenty foot tall trees growing up through the engine compartment

In front of one house outside Great Falls, an old combine sits in front of the house.  It’s been there the twenty two years I’ve been driving past the house.  It makes me wonder if there was a conversation that went like this: “Maw, I’ve been thinking the front yard needs a little decoration.   I think I’ll pull up that old combine from the barn and park it in front of the window.  It can sit there and rust and folks will understand it is a representation of the deterioration of American industrial might and the rise of neo-deconstructionism.”

One day it hit me:  everything I have seen, from the firetruck to the combine, started with thinking, “This would be a good idea.”

Maybe they thought it would be temporary:  “I’ll park the combine here and move it later.”  Maybe they have told themselves the lie all men tell themselves: “I’m going to fix that car/truck/tractor one day.”  Maybe they were stubborn cusses and figured if something was worth doing, it was worth doing the hard way.

It’s not just people’s yards.  I see people breaking up their marriages to pursue fantasies that I know will be empty.  I want to shake them and ask, “what are you thinking?”  I see parents who will not say “no” to their children.  I want to pull them aside and ask “what are you thinking?”  The other day I saw a young man pull up in a new expense car I’m pretty sure he can’t afford.  I wanted to rush over, grab the keys, and say, “what are you thinking?”

But then I pause and remember Jesus’ instruction: “First take the fence post out of your own eye before you fish around looking for sawdust in someone else’s eye.”  Does God ever look at me and say, “Clay, what are you thinking?”

I think about words that fly out of my mouth and hurt people.  I think how stupid I am to believe old lies I know aren’t true: “Two pieces of cake will make you feel better.”  I think about how often hurry through prayer or Bible Study, and then wonder why I feel empty.

What was I thinking?

Thinking matters.  Before you let your brain sign off on something as a good idea, you need to ask your Father in Heaven, “good idea or bad idea?”  You will surprised how often He wisely shakes His head and says, “No.  Bad idea.  You can’t see where this leads, but I can.  If you do this, it will be like parking a combine in the front yard of your soul.

This is why the Bible says, “Pray without ceasing.”  We need guidance in every decision, for every moment of our lives.

Wouldn’t it be great if your Heavenly Father said to you “I’m glad you prayed.  You are learning to think just like me.”  Isn’t that a lot better than our Heavenly Father saying, “What were you thinking?”

This Story Can’t Be True

I saw this story on my twitter feed.  It’s a from a guy I know who works for a denomination.  He works in the office all week and then preaches at different churches every week.  He sees a lot of churches, hears a lot of things.

This past Sunday, as the worship begins, announcements are shared.  The first thing spoken was not a word from God, not even “Remember the potluck dinner Wednesday night.”

The first thing said was “Ya’ll remember to keep the doors locked.  We don’t want people getting into the church.”

Let me repeat: “Ya’ll remember to keep the doors locked.  We don’t want people getting into the church.”

My friend thought he had heard wrong.  He didn’t.  Heads nodded. Mentally, deadbolts clicked.  These people were sure that church was only for people who had keys.

Anybody want to place a bet on how much longer that church will be in business?

Or did it go out of business years ago, and no body has told them yet they are just a social club, where only members get the keys?

Please, somebody tell me this story isn’t true.  It just can’t be.


Home Hunters…

For five years I served as pastor of Southside Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.  The church was located in the middle of a neighborhood that had seen better days.  Eleven hundred square foot houses were lined up on lots that were 50 feet wide and 120 feet deep.  Most of the people in the neighborhood and in the church had moved up from rural Kentucky during the great depression or moved in when they came home from World War II.   They found work in the L&N Railroad shops, or at the Naval Ordinance Station, or at International Harvester.  As soon as they could scratch together a down payment, they bought a house and raised a family.  Often, four or five children were jammed into two tiny bedrooms, with everyone in the house sharing one bath.  When I asked the parents about it years later, they said with enthusiasm, “Having indoor plumbing was a real upgrade from the outhouse back on the farm.”

By the time I came to the church, most of the people had put in their thirty or forty years.  They got their gold watch and retired.  They had sent their children off to college and were a little surprised their children didn’t move back into the old neighborhood.

When a pastor is new to a church, people want to know about you.  I was asked, over and over, “Now where are you from?”  I told them about being from Florida and growing up on a ranch.  Before I could ask them a question back, they were quick to pick up the thread of “Where are you from?” by telling me “I’m from Campbell County.”  Or “I’m from Barren County,” or “McCracken County.”  They never referenced the name of a town or a city, always a county.  When one man told me he was from “Bourbon County” I thought that must have been an interesting place to grow up.  No one ever said they were from Louisville.


After they had established which county was their place of origin, I would ask them how long they had lived in Louisville.  The most common answer: “Oh, about 45 years.”  Many had lived in the same house, in the same neighborhood, going to the same church for 45 years, but they all wanted me to know that they were not Louisvillians;  they were from the country.

In another sense, they were telling me that Louisville was not home.  Whatever it meant for them to be from Campbell County, or Barren County, or even Bourbon County, they had not found it in Louisville. For those folks, home was a memory.  Forty or fifty years after they left, they were still longing for home.

Everyone is hunting for a sense of home.  We try to make a house a home, filling it with pictures and furniture.  We hunt for a church that feels like family, where we can feel like home.  But finding a home ends up not being so much about a place, but something our heart seeks.

The deepest longing of your heart is find a place of rest, a place of grace, a place of love.  You will never find that in a building.  You will, however, find it in the presence of an amazing Savior, Jesus.

Remembering Sept. 12th …

Yesterday marked the fifteenth anniversary of September 11th.  Like everyone else of a certain age, I can remember were I was that day.  I heard the news coming out of counseling appointment.  Instantly we planned a community prayer service for that evening.  I remember sneaking peeks at the TV that day, trying to understand what was happening.  I was also calling pastors to invite them to participate in the service, and planning my own remarks.  I checked on my children and wife to make sure everyone was safe (funny how attacks in New York and Washington make you feel threatened in Sumter).

We did the community prayer service and it blessed many.  I’ll never forget servicemen  and women coming up to me to tell me they were shipping out that night and they didn’t know when they would see me again.  I was asked to pray with families that faced an uncertain future.

I went to bed that night, exhausted.

The next day dawned with an hangover of reality.  I remember wondering if the kids should go to school.  I wasn’t sure whether I would have anyone keep their appointments.  I discarded my sermon for Sunday and started to write a new one.

What I remember most about September 12th is the stark reality the world had changed.  As Pearl Harbor defined one generation, and the death of John Kennedy defined another, so my generation would be defined by September 11th.  It would be my friends and neighbors going to war.

What I didn’t know that day was that the war would continue for 15 years.  The rest of our nation may have forgotten we have troops on the ground, but we have not.  Those troops on the ground, in the air, and on the sea are our people.  We’ve seen the toll on the families.  We’ve seen the frustration of a military asked to do more with less.  We’ve ministered to Jesus followers who struggled with orders they had to give and orders they had to carry out.

September 11th was the day the world stopped turning (to borrow a phrase from Alan Jackson).  September 12th was the day the world started to turn again, with a new wobble.

It seems every decade or two, there is that pivotal moment when the world stops and then starts again.  We are probably due for another wobble, another start and stop moment.  When it happens – and it will – God will still be in control.  He will still hold the future.  He will still offer hope and comfort to all who seek Him.

To me, September 12th will always be a day of faith.  It represents the day I remembered to trust my Father in heaven, no matter what happens in the world.


I’ve seen people I thought were crazy.

When I was on duty as an emergency room chaplain in seminary, EMS brought in a girl one night who was diabetic.  She had drank three beers, not realizing beer has sugar in it.  She couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds, but it took two EMTs, two orderlies, two hospital security guards and one chaplain (me) to move her from one gurney to another.   She was in a diabetic rage.  We had to strap her down and put her in the quiet room until she was sedated enough for the doctor to do an exam.  No doubt in my mind, in that moment, she was crazy.

Crazy isn’t just about being out of control.  I watched a documentary on the construction of the Empire State Building.  In those pre-OSHA days, steel workers walked the beams hundreds of feet in the air without a safety harness or a net.  Not one of them feel to their deaths.  I couldn’t watch the show without feeling queasy.  I would call those men “crazy.”  Sometimes one man’s crazy is another man’s way of making a living.

I remember counseling a couple.  The wife was very beautiful; the husband, average looking.  Strangely, he was having an affair.  As it happened, I knew the other woman involved.  When they first shared their situation with me, I made a very superficial judgment and thought, “Man, you are crazy!  You have a beautiful wife; why would you cheat on her?”  As is always the case, the affair was a symptom of deeper issues involving him and her.  After spending time with them, I realized the man was not as crazy as I thought; he was in pain and his pain was leading him to bad choices.  What seemed crazy to me at first turned out to be not craziness, but pain.

We can be quick to hang the crazy label on people who are out of control, who are living in a way that would terrify us, or who are acting out of a deep pain.  But that doesn’t mean they are crazy.  It means they don’t fit our profile or our definition.

Did you know people thought Jesus was crazy?  There were times his disciples thought he had lost it and tried to correct him.  His mother and brothers believed he was delusional and came to get him.  They were going to take him by force to get him calmed down.  Religious scholars could not explain how he did what he did, so they said he cast out demons by the chief crazy maker himself, Beelzebub.

Jesus didn’t accept the “crazy” label.  Nor did he choose to conform so everyone would stop calling him crazy.  He kept being who he was (and is):  A Messiah on a Mission.

His mission was to tell people the Kingdom of God has come.  His death on the cross paid our sin debt so we can participate in this new Kingdom.  His resurrection gives us the power to live every day in the Kingdom.

You know what is really crazy?  People who would rather live in their own little kingdom of darkness, than come into the Kingdom of Light, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus.  That’s crazy.

Just one last question:  Are you crazy?

Respect the Office

Let me get something off my chest.

Our President has endured some harsh criticism at home.  Some of it is justified, as it would be with any president.  Some of it is politics – people will say anything to get a vote these days.  Some of it is just cruel.

Recently, when the President landed at the G-20 Summit in China, the Chinese failed to have the airplane steps in place.  Then the President of the Philippines called our President the son of a wh—.

I vividly remember my Aunt Ouida saying, “Nobody talks about our family, but our family.”  It’s one thing to have a debate amongst ourselves; it is another to make unfounded accusations that others pick up.

There was a time, not so long ago, when we all understood that even if you didn’t respect the man in the office, you still respected the office.  As our culture has come to respect authority less, this too is eroding.

Here is our mistake:  We think no one is listening.  We assume it’s okay if we call our President names, but then we are surprised when abuse is heaped upon him overseas.

I think we need to respect the office.  Whether Democrat or Republican sits in the chair, I think we should honor the person who holds the office, who accepts the tremendous responsibility of leading our country and representing us to the rest of the world.

I have not agreed with everything President Obama has done.  I didn’t agree with everything George W. Bush did, or Bill Clinton, or George H.W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan, or Jimmy Carter, or Gerald Ford, or Richard Nixon, or Lyndon Johnson, or Dwight Eisenhower (Yes, I am that old).

Being a casual student of history, I can point to unwise moves every president made, from Washington to Jackson, from Lincoln to Roosevelt (both of them).  Even my favorite, Harry Truman, said and did things that don’t look very smart in hindsight.

But I had the chance to shake Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter’s hand.  I said “Thank you sir” to both.

No matter who is elected in November, whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump,  I will still respect the office.  Because whoever sits in that chair, they must lead us.

Not only will I respect the office, I will pray for them.  That’s what Jesus tells me to do.  And I will love them, whether they are my neighbors or my enemies.  Jesus covered both.

Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.


Hit Upside the Head with the Big Stick of Reality…

Some of you have never heard the phrase “hit upside the head.”  I’m sorry you had such a deprived upbringing.  It is the equivalent of “being knocked upside the head,” or “having some sense knocked into you.”

If this is still unclear, the idea is some of us are so hard headed, so stubborn, so rebellious, the only way we will ever see the truth is when we face the hard realities of life.

There is something I call “the big stick of reality.”  It goes like this:  A man lives with a fantasy of leaving his wife to pursue some sexual fantasy.  In his mind, he sketches out a beautiful scenario that focuses on all his needs being met.  He takes steps to put his fantasy into motion.  He tells his wife he is leaving.  She does not receive the news calmly, as in his fantasy.  There is, in fact, a scene.  Soon his wife has a lawyer.  He must get one too (Someone once told me lawyer conference rooms were the place fantasies go to die).  He faces the reality of alimony and child support and jail.  He is being hit upside the head with the big stick of reality.

God does this.  His people, Israel, had a fantasy that they could worship God on the Sabbath, and live pretty much as they please Sunday through Friday.  God tried to warn them, but they wouldn’t listen.  So God sent an invading army, and the next thing you know, people are losing their homes, are carried into exile, and lose their national identity.  That is being hit upside the head with a big stick of reality.

Human beings have a tremendous capacity for denial.  God doesn’t want to use the big stick of reality.  He wants us to be drawn to His love and grace.  But we are stubborn.  So out comes the stick and we get the hit upside the head.

Here’s the funny thing:  When people get hit with reality, usually in the form of consequences for their own decisions, who do they get mad at?  Themselves?  Nope!  They get mad at God, claim He is being unfair.

Before you blame God, you might just want to check in with Him. See if your current big stick of reality upside your head is really God telling you He loves you so much, He’s wiling to cause you some pain to get to get your attention.



Tough People I Have Known

I grew up among tough people.

I don’t think they set out to be tough.  Life demanded toughness and they answered.

  • I saw my Uncle Earl dig out a three-inch splinter from the palm of his hand with his pocket knife.
  • I saw my step father get caught with a fish hook.  He pushed on through (even with the eye intact), adjusted his cigar, and went back to fishing.
  • After my Daddy died, everybody told my Mama to sell the ranch.  She dug in her heels and refused.
  • When the family needed groceries in the depression, my Aunt Ouida, a teenager, would go down to the barn by herself, kill a steer, butcher it, lay out the meat on the backseat of Model A Ford, and go to town to trade it out for sugar and coffee.
  • The woman who helped raised me, Bert Calder, once told some boys to quit picking on me or she was going to whoop their —–.  Except Bert didn’t use hyphens.  They kept picking on me, and the whooping began.
  • There are stories about my Daddy, nicknamed King Kong, that tell me he was tough.  He and his cousin Top Barlow practiced steer wrestling by going out in the pasture in an old truck, one driving, one riding on the fender.  They would pull up next to a running steer and the one on the fender would leap onto the steer and wrestle it to the ground.  For long time, Daddy held the record for the fastest time throwing a steer in the state of Florida: 1.7 seconds.
  • My granddaddy was told at age eight to go make his own way in the world.  He started as a cook on a dredge in the Kissimmee River.  He would have to hunt for the meat, kill something, clean it, and cook it for the crew.  At eight years old.

Tough people do what needs to be done.  But none of these people were as tough as the toughest man I’ve ever known.

This man was tough enough to tell the phonies they were phonies.  He spit in the face of evil.  He attacked corruption.  When faced with his own death, he didn’t run away.  He knew his death would mean others would live.

In one of the most mysterious moments of history, he took on the ultimate enemy.  Three days after his demise, he licked death in a battle that changed everything.

The toughest man I’ve ever known is Jesus.

Was he tender?  Of course.  But if your picture of Jesus is just of His tender moments, you’ve missed the part of the story that changes history, that changes you.  It is the part of the story that keeps you from staying a victim, because Jesus wants you to be like Him.  Tough.  Because tough disciples do what needs to be done for their master, the toughest one of all.