The Night They Tried to Fire the Preacher…

church fights

We moved away from the ranch when my mother married my step-father.  For ten years, I lived in Largo, an exploding suburb of St. Petersburg.  It was at the First Baptist Church of Largo that I made my profession of faith and was baptized.

Because Baptists believe in the priesthood of believers, at that time baptized church members no matter their age could attend church conference and vote.  At eight years old, my vote carried the same weight as my parents.

I was a weird kid; church conference fascinated me.  Normally calm men would get red in the face as they struggled to hold back words.  I think I knew what words they wanted to say; I’d heard them in the cowpens.  Timid women would forget Paul’s injunction to keep silent in church and would stand up to lambast Deacons, Music Directors, and the Preacher’s wife.  If you didn’t have a dog in the fight, a Baptist business meeting in late 60’s was better than anything on television for raw entertainment value.

I must have been about eleven when I sat with Mama at a church conference one Wednesday night.  Pop was there too, which was unusual; that should have been my first clue that something was up.  Roy Attaway, a good friend of my parents went forward to make a motion declaring “no-confidence” in the preacher.  I’d never heard this phrase before.  I wasn’t sure what “no-confidence” meant, but I could tell by Mr. Roy’s tone, he didn’t like the preacher.

I leaned over to ask Mama what “no-confidence” meant and she shushed me.  When Mama shushed, she meant it.  So, I leaned over to my friend Charles Brown and whispered my question to him.  Before he could answer me, Mama grabbed my ear and yanked me back to her side (which is why to this day, my left ear lobe is longer than my right).

People got up and said nice things about the preacher, followed by people who got up and said not so nice things about the preacher.  As best I could follow, some folks were upset that the preacher always insisting on his way, and they didn’t like his way.  I looked at my parents and could tell by their nodding, they were on the side of people who didn’t like the way the Preacher was doing things.

When Baptists get up a head of steam, a church conference can last a long, long time.  The meeting had started at 6:30; it was drawing close to 9:30, way past my bedtime.  Still the entertainment value was high.  The drama was better than “The NBC Mystery Theater” on TV that night.

Someone finally called for the vote.  It was carefully explained by the Preacher (who was the moderator – awkward) that a “yes” vote meant a vote of “no-confidence,” and a “no” vote meant you approved of the preacher (Baptists would later go on to write many parts of the IRS tax code).  My parents raised their hands to vote “yes.”  It was then I realized I could vote too.

I didn’t particularly like the preacher, but I didn’t dislike him either.  To my eleven-year old mind, I knew he wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t think he ought to be fired.  It wasn’t like he was caught sniffing glue, or sneaking a peek at a Playboy.  It was just that he and the other grownups didn’t agree.  I understood that.  I didn’t agree with grownups very much either.

My mother reached over and tried to raise my hand for me.  I snatched it away.  When the vote for the “no’s” occurred, I raised my hand.  My mother gave a me look that said, “Wait till we get home, young man.”

As I recall the vote ended up failing by five votes.  On the way home, my mother said, “Why did you vote the same way Charles Brown voted?  Don’t you think I know more than he does?”  I recognized the danger in those questions, and wisely left them unanswered.  Then I spoke the truth, “I voted the way I voted because it seemed right to me.”

I mark that night as the first time I learned some people think church is about winning and losing.  Maybe my parents had a point; maybe the Preacher was a little hard-headed.  Still, I wondered then, and wonder now, why didn’t they just get together and talk about it?  Maybe even pray about it?  Why did it have to come down to winning and losing?

Too many churches make dumb decisions because they think every decision must have winners and losers.  Funny, I don’t remember Jesus talking much about winning and losing in the church.  I remember a lot of stuff about love, and serving, and making sure we follow Jesus.  Maybe if we stuck to that, we’d be a lot better off.

My parents are gone now; the Preacher in question is still alive and is my friend on Facebook; and First Baptist Largo no longer exists.  I myself narrowly escaped a group that wanted to fire me at a church in Kentucky for some reason or other.

Still, I think back to the night they wanted to fire the Preacher.  The biggest lesson I learned? You can be all grown up and still not really do what Jesus wants you to do.

 

We Are Different, We are the Same…

different same

We are different.

We have different skin tones, different facial features.  Northerners sound funny to Southerners; Southerners sound funny to Northerners.  Some have hair, others (like me) have beautiful scalps, free from follicle interference.   Some people like liver; others gag at the smell.

Men and women are different.  Sure, there is basic biology: women have different parts than men.  But our differences are beyond our parts.  Our bodies produce different chemicals at different levels.  Pharmaceutical companies are just waking up to the idea that they need to test some medicines on men and women before prescribing treatments.  We are different at a very basic level.

All women are not alike.  I know women who would much rather be in the garage fixing a car than in the kitchen fixing a casserole.  All men are not alike.  I know men who would rather arrange bouquets than hunt Bambi.  Before we say, “That’s not normal,” we must ask, “What is normal?  And who gets to define normal?  The US Department of Normal?”

Brothers can be different.  My brother collects guns.  I collect books.  Sisters can be different. One of my sisters can cook up a storm; the other sister can calm a storm of preschoolers.

We are different.

Why?  Maybe God knew we needed variety.  Maybe God knew we would never learn to love unless we learned to accept each other’s differences.  Maybe God knew different people would need different gifts to make a difference.

We are the same.

I’ve never meet a human being who didn’t long to connect to another person.  I’ve never meet a human being who didn’t long to be noticed by someone.  I’ve never meet a human being who wasn’t hungry to be understood.

Every child, even a child who is profoundly disabled, is curious.  Put six children with different skin tones in a room, and they explore together.  They learn together.  They discover together.

I’ve never known a human being who missed out on pain.  We hurt.  We grieve.  Even the man who is mute expresses his pain with a silent cry.  Pain is a universal language.

Brothers and sisters can be the same.  My brother and I have the same upper sinuses that cause disgusting sounds when we wake up in the morning.  Since I’m the youngest, it’s frightening to see my future when I see my brother.

We are the same.

Why?  We are the same because we are all made in God’s image.  God said, “Let us make man in our own image, male and female.”  God crafted us all in the same basic design, with just enough difference to keep things interesting.  You bear the image of God; so do I.  So do people in China, North Korea, Iran, England, Costa Rica, Haiti, and California.  There is a sacred imprint on our souls that not even sin washes completely away.

How do you love people different than you?  Find inside that person what is the same as you.  Find the sacred fingerprint of God.

Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.”

Find the sacred.  Love and do good.

Blind…

blind

 

I got my first pair of contacts in the seventh grade.  They were (and still are) the old-fashioned rigid plastic kind.  The optometrist emphasized to me over and over, “These must be kept clean.”  Have you ever seen a twelve-year-old boy keep anything clean?

After a few months of wearing my contacts (and not following Doctor’s orders), I woke one night with an excruciating pain in both eyes.  It felt like someone had ground up glass and poured it under my eyelids.  I was in agony.  As bad as my eyes felt closed, the pain increased a dozen fold if I opened my eyes.

I toughed it out until six the next morning.  I kept my eyes closed, felt my way down the hall, woke my mom, and told her what was happening.  She made a call to Dr. Sera, a family friend, who agreed to see me as soon as the office opened.

I kept my eyes closed as Mom fixed breakfast and had the strange sensation of trying to find my way to the eggs on my plate without seeing them.  Mom had to lead to me to the car and then out of the car to the Doctor’s office.

Dr. Sera put me in a dark room, pried open my eyes, put some dye in them (which increased the pain!) and told me to relax.  Why do Doctors tell you to relax when they have knowingly just increased the pain?

He examined my eyes with his special lenses and rendered the verdict: I had a corneal abrasion.  Lack of cleaning my contacts caused dirt to accumulate.  The contacts had gouged a trench in both eyes.  I was given some drops and told to keep my eyes shut for the next twenty-four hours.

To be blind means you can’t see (thank you Captain Obvious!).  My brothers tried to trip me as I felt my way to the bathroom. I was the object of lots of jokes at dinner. Mostly, I was bored because I could not watch TV or read.  I couldn’t go where I wanted to go.

People have scratches on their souls.  Sometimes they are wounds from history, or even wounds they absorbed from their parents and grandparents.  The scratches cause blindness.  In our pain, we close our eyes to realities that cause us to think uncomfortable, painful thoughts.  In our blindness, we stumble into prejudice, bigotry, self-righteousness, and self-aggrandizement.  No one is born a racist; there is a wound in the past that scratches a soul and causes blindness.  Our blindness as a culture keeps us from going where we want to go.

What’s sad to me is the number of Jesus followers who stay blind.  This is not what Jesus wants for any of us.  The foretelling of his birth included this line: “Rise and shine, behold your light has come!”  Jesus said, “I have come to give sight to the blind” and “I am the light of the world.”

Part of Jesus’s invitation of grace to you is leave your blindness to your blindness.  Let him heal the wounds of your soul.  Let him set you free from the limits of your past.

I’ll never forget what it felt like after twenty-four hours to open my eyes again.  There was no pain.  To paraphrase a classic 60’s song, “I could see clearly now, the pain had gone.”  I kept my contacts clean from then on.

Isn’t it time for you to let Jesus touch your blindness that you are blind to?  Isn’t it time for you to let his light shine on the wounds of your soul?  Isn’t time for your wounds and your blindness to be healed?

He sees you and sees the you he wants you to be.

When Billy Graham Said “No”…

Integrated crowd at Billy Graham Crusade

 Billy Graham was a son of the segregated South.  He grew up, as did I, with signs declaring “Whites Only” and “No Colored Served Here.”  Division by race was the abnormal accepted thing.  It was understood that black people who showed up at “white” churches would be met at the door and redirected to a church for “their kind.”

Billy Graham became a national figure in 1949 with the Los Angeles crusade.  Invitations to conduct city-wide crusades poured in, including invitations in Southern cities.  During the first Southern city-wide crusades, whites and blacks were seated in different sections, as was the custom.  But the Holy Spirit began to trouble Billy’s heart.

The defining moment came in 1953, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King, before lunch counter sit-ins, before Civil Rights marches.  It happened in Chattanooga, a southern city with deep racial division (what southern city didn’t have deep racial divisions?).

The stadium where the crusade was to held had been divided into white and black sections, as was the custom.  Ropes marked the division.

When Billy Graham came to the stadium prior to the first night of the crusade, he saw the ropes.  This time, he said, “No.”  With holy passion he mounted the steps of the stadium and began to pull down the ropes and the signs.  Local Crusade organizers tried to stop him.  He bluntly told them, “Leave the ropes down or you can have the crusade without me.”  The ropes stayed down.  The gospel was preached.  Whites and blacks came forward together to receive Christ.  Because one man said, “No.”

It is hard now, in 2018, to realize how courageous this act was.  Just three years after Chattanooga, Billy Graham’s pastor, W. A. Criswell, would proclaim to the South Carolina Legislature that “anyone who believes in integration is dead from the neck up.”  Graham quickly made a statement to the press, saying, “My pastor and I have never seen eye-to-eye on the race question.”  What Graham did not say was that a great number of his financial backers expected Graham to support segregation or at least stay silent on race.  But Graham would not budge.  Every crusade would integrated – period.  For more than twenty years, Billy Graham refused to hold a crusade in South Africa, until segregation laws were repealed.

True, Billy Graham did not march with Martin Luther King, Jr.  By his own admission, he became too involved in politics during the Nixon Administration.  He was not perfect, nor did he claim to be.

But for millions of Americans who had been touched by his ministry, a new thought formed: “If Billy Graham says ‘no’ to segregation, maybe I should say ‘no’ too.”

I remember as a child seeing televised crusades.  The camera would pan over the choir and I would see black people singing next to white people.  I had never seen that growing up in rural Florida.  Even in my child’s mind, something said, “This must good, if it’s happening at a Billy Graham crusade.”

Billy Graham has always been my hero.  He preached the gospel.  Millions came to know Jesus.  He used modern media to share Jesus.  He made it okay to have music that sounded contemporary in Christian gathering.  He spoke as the prophet America needed to hear, once saying to a white audience, “We have been proud and thought we were better than any other race, any other people. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to stumble into hell because of our pride.”  He was the nation’s pastor, a calming voice of faith when tragedy struck.

And he tore down the ropes.

Thank you, Billy Graham, for saying “No.”

We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us…

Pogo Earth Day strip-8x6

How many more times must this be breaking news? A disgruntled former student, who was identified as a threat, took an AR-15 into his old school, opened fire, and killed seventeen.  They went to school that day, never dreaming it would their last day on earth.

The wearying debate renews between gun advocates and gun controllers.  Facebook fingers point in every direction.  We all want to find who to blame.  Was it the parents?  The school administration?  Teachers who failed to make a report about the troubled student?

What if the system didn’t break down?  What if the problem is the system itself?  What if the problem is the culture we are building?

Culture is a strange thing: it is built by what is accepted by the majority.  Choice by choice, the majority builds the culture it wants.  We may decry a culture of violence, but we still purchase video games that allow us to give virtual opponents a gory death.  Parents try hard not to warp their children and become so hands off they leave the souls of their children blank slates.  We push sex and technology onto our children before they have the wisdom to make good decisions.  It is easier to be carried by the tide than to fight against it.

Resisting what is accepted by the majority has always been God’s agenda.  God said to Noah, “I want you to resist this culture.  Build an ark.  Be foolish.  I’m going to save you.”  God said to his people in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, “You are not to be like the nations around you.  You are to be my people and follow my ways, my teaching.”  Jesus said, “I do not give you as the worlds gives.  Do not let your heart be troubled and do not be afraid.”

The call to God’s people is the same: Resist the darkness.  Resist the violence.  Dare to parent your children like Jesus would, and risk being called the most unpopular parent in the world (you will survive).  Churches, invest in children and students.  Their homes are broken and they need to know God’s people love them and accept them.

Jesus followers, stop being entertained by violence.  It is not entertaining.  It is sending a message.  Hollywood says, “We’re only making movies people want to see.”  Let’s send a message back, “I don’t want to see that.”

Do you own a gun?  Make sure it’s locked so kids can’t get to it.  Own an AR-15?  Ask Jesus if that’s something you really need.  Even if he says “yes,” I’ll bet he also says, “Lock it up.”  You might say, “Nobody’s going to get my AR-15 and shoot up a school.”  That’s not the point.  The point is you should ask Jesus what he thinks.  Or do you trust Jesus only with heavenly matters and tell him to stay away from what you treasure?

I don’t know if Jesus followers can stem this tide of violence.  I don’t know if we can stop children from killing children.  But I know this: Jesus followers can live by a different culture, the culture of the Kingdom of God.  That’s where we’re supposed to be.

Years ago, Walt Kelly drew a cartoon of his character Pogo, looking at a trash filled swamp.  He said to his friend, Porcupine, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Look at the swamp of this violent culture.  Who trashed it?  We did.  Only Jesus can redeem it.  His church is to be his agent of redemption, people who say, we will not live by this culture of violence.  We will be different.

For Jesus followers, it’s time for the enemy to longer be us.  Stop aiding the cause of the enemy.  Let’s be citizens of a different kingdom, the kingdom of light, peace, joy, and powerful redemption – the Kingdom of God.

 

Four Letter Words…

four letter words

There is nothing better than a tangerine.  When I grew up, down behind the barn, along the fence line of the lot, there were three big tangerine trees.  There is no telling how old those trees were.  When tangerines were in season, we’d take a break, pick a tangerine off the tree, peel back the rind, and eat each slice.  Refreshing.

Racoons like tangerines too.  Each year there was a struggle between the racoons and Pop, my step-father, over who got the most tangerines.  Pop rarely got mad, but he hated to see tangerines wasted as racoon food.  Finally, he’d had enough.  “Clay,” he said, “Come on.  We’re going to pick the rest of those tangerines before the racoons get them all.”

We propped a ladder against the tree, and I put my foot on the first rung.  Pop said, “No.  You stay on the ground and catch ‘em.  I’ll go up the tree and throw ‘em down.”  I protested that I was younger and lighter.  He was insistent.  So up the ladder he went.

Pop was pretty agile for a sixty-five-year-old man.  Before long, he stepped off the ladder and onto the branches of the tree.  He had been a baseball player in high school and could pitch tangerines to me on the ground with deadly accuracy.  I’m still not sure why he wanted to climb the tree himself.  He did believe if you wanted something done right, do it yourself.  Or maybe, he just wanted to feel young again and climb a tree.

We had picked a bushel of tangerines, but there were still some high in the tree, where the ladder wouldn’t reach.  You’ve heard of a “bridge too far?”  There is also such a thing as a “limb too far.”  Pop went one limb too far.

I heard a loud crack.  Then I saw Pop, all 180 pounds of him, falling toward me.  A good son would have caught his father, or at least broken his fall.  I was not a good son.  I ran.

There was an old metal gate under the tangerine tree.  The grass had overgrown it, so it wasn’t easy to see.  As Pop plummeted to earth, I waited for him to turn over and land on all fours, like a cat.  He was agile, but not that agile.  He landed flat on his back, on the metal gate, with the thud of metal resisting bone.

The fall didn’t knock him out.  Amazingly, he sprang right up off that metal gate and grabbed his head.

Pop was not the first person I’d seen get hurt on the ranch.  Cowboys have colorful, four-letter words to deploy whenever they are run over by a bull, or kicked by horse, or put a nail through their hand.  Those words were all appropriate for use when you fall out of a tangerine tree.

Pop was not a cussing man.  In fact, I had never heard him cuss.  Never.  As he sprung up from the ground, I thought the moment would finally come.  I would hear him swear.  I would hear four-letter words.

Pop said, “Kiss my foot.”

Not exactly the four-letter words I expected.

We all have four-letter words we use for emphasis.  I’m sure you have some in your vocabulary.  God uses four-letter words for emphasis too.  Whenever we fall out of life, God comes to us with four-letter words…Love. Hope. Rest. Heal. Calm. Gift.

God’s four-letter words are the words your soul longs to hear.  God’s four-letter words are a lot better than “Kiss my foot.”  Or some of the other four-letter words I’ve heard.

Jesus Talks to Outsiders; Jesus Talks to Insiders

exclusion

 

There are always outsiders who don’t quite fit in.  Outsiders may be outside by an inch: an odd quirk keeps them out of the inner circle.  Outsiders may be outside by a mile: their skin is the wrong color, or their religion is wrong, or their culture is a threat.  We like to keep people outside our circle… well, outside.  We push them to the margin.  We blame them for their problems.  When outsiders come to our church, our smiles are a little forced, and they pick up the cue: go find your own people.

Jesus met outsiders in his day.  Tax collectors were outsiders.  Jesus met at least two. To Matthew he said, “Follow me.”  “Follow me” is the ultimate invitation to become an insider.  To Zacchaeus, he said, “I going to stay at your house today.”  This is less an invitation, and more Jesus busting down the door of the outsider to say, “I’ve come to make you an insider.”

In Jesus’s day, women were outsiders.  For Jewish males, foreign women were seen as exotic temptresses.  Jewish women were thought by some to be of value only for bearing children.  Jesus stopped to noticed women, not as sexual objects or reproductive agents.  He gave hope back to a widow when he raised her son from the dead.  When a woman who had ongoing bleeding touched the hem of his garment, he stopped to discover her, and then pronounced her healed.  He protected a woman caught in adultery from being stoned.  His longest recorded conversation was with a Samaritan woman at a well.  He changed her life and her village.

Every time Jesus encounters the outsider, he speaks to them invitingly.  He notices them.  He lets each of them know they matter to God.

There are always insiders who have position and power.  Oddly, insiders often protest they are not insiders.  Sometimes they do this so their power can stay hidden.  Sometimes they protest because they are genuinely clueless about their privilege.

We all long to be inside.  This longing is so deep, if we are deprived of it, we will create our own insider group to exclude others (usually people from another insider group that threaten us).  Kids from dysfunctional families join a gang.  A group at work forms to gossip about another group at work that gossips.  We want to be inside.

Jesus met insiders too.  Pharisees were insiders.  Their keeping of the religious code made them the spiritual elite.  Every time Jesus encountered a Pharisee, he challenged their ideas of superiority.  When Jesus met Nicodemus, a Pharisee, he opened the discussion with a challenge: “You must be born again.” Translation: your insider status counts for nothing.

The rich young ruler was an insider, based on the fact he was rich, young, and a ruler.  Jesus loved him enough to tell him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and follow him.  A more radical challenge could not have been giving. The rich young ruler couldn’t do it.  Being an insider was more important than following Jesus.

Every time Jesus met an insider, he challenged them.  He challenged their convictions.  He was fearless.  He did not need or want their approval.  He had no desire to enter their inner circle.  He wanted every insider to turn away from the insider circles they had created to realize the radical change they needed.

Churches are supposed to speak like Jesus. Followers of Jesus need to speak invitingly and warmly to all outsiders.  We need to say, “Come and see.”  Followers of Jesus need to speak confrontively to insiders, especially to ourselves.  There are too many opportunities to fool ourselves into believing we’re special because we keep a religious code.  Maybe instead of passing the peace of Christ, we should pass the challenge of Christ: “Are you humbly seeking Jesus each day?”

Don’t miss the truth of Jesus: He loves the outsiders enough to invite them in.  He loves the insiders enough to challenge them with the truth.  Which way is he loving you?

Trust Enough to Ask…

ice cream

When you are a new believer, and you read Jesus’s words, “Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be open to you,” it sounds like magic.  Ask for what I want?  Answers given whenever I seek?  Closed doors opening?  This is Jesus’s invitation to pray boldly.  So, you do.  You ask for your husband to change.  You want God to answer why someone you love got cancer.  You knock on a closed door, knowing that God will so convict your Dad, that he will pick up the phone and call you after a three-year silence.

You wait for your husband to change.  And you wait.  And wait.  The turmoil in your heart about why a good person suffers doesn’t go away.  Your Dad’s number never shows up on your phone.  Then you are left with deep unease.  Did Jesus not keep his promise?  Did you not have enough faith?  Did Jesus lie?

Bible scholars and preachers handle Jesus’s promise in two ways.  First, they try to explain Jesus’s words are not what they seem to be.  They try to limit the scope of the promise, or draw in other scripture that seems to teach us to limit our asking.  The outcome of this teaching is timid prayer, anemic prayer, prayer that doesn’t move a grain of sand, much less a mountain.

The second way preachers explain Jesus’s words is to claim this as a faith promise.  We are to ask, seek, and knock and God will give.  Preachers thunder, “You have not, because you ask not!”  Then they get in their Mercedes and go home.  If God is not giving you the sweet life, it is because you don’t ask, or you don’t ask in faith.  The outcome of this teaching is foolish asking and foolish thinking.  “Name it and claim it” turns God into a heavenly Amazon Prime, delivering blessings to our door.

What did Jesus mean?

When my daughter Sarah was two, she asked me to go by Sonic and get some ice cream.  I told her “no.”  She asked again.  I said “no” again.  She paused, thought and then said, “Daddy, Jesus wants you to get me some ice cream.”

I wonder where she learned that?

Sarah did not get ice cream that day.  I wasn’t being cruel.  I was being wise.  She needed a nap and the sugar in the ice cream would wind her up for hours.  When I told Sarah “no” she thought I was the cruelest Dad in the world.

I’ve told this story before as an example of our heavenly Father knowing our needs better than we know our own.  That’s still true.  It’s only recently, however, that I realize how much Sarah trusted me.  She knew her father loved her (and loves her still).  Even at two, she knew I was the source of good gifts.  So when she wanted ice cream, she asked her father.  She trusted me enough to ask.

I think this is what Jesus is teaching us.  Trust your Heavenly Father to ask, seek and knock.  Trust him with raw desires of your heart.  Don’t try to edit your prayer to make it perfect or acceptable.

But remember asking is the first step of prayer.  It starts a conversation.  Asking means listening for God to speak back to you and tell you, you don’t need ice cream, you need a nap.  It means trusting him enough to lie and take the nap.

Ask boldly.  Trust boldly.  Trust your heavenly Father enough to ask.

Now, I need to decide if I need ice cream or a nap.

Was it His Time?

Day 237 of 365 - Moo Clock

As a pastor, death is part of my job.  I’ve done over 500 funerals in my time.  Once, I did three in the same day.

Each death is different because each grief is different.  I’ve done funerals where no one cried, because everyone was glad the person died.  If you don’t understand that, you’ve never watched your Momma suffer with Alzheimer’s for fourteen years.  I’ve done funerals where everyone was in tears, because the person’s work wasn’t done yet, and everyone knew it.  That’s the reason people cried at my Daddy’s funeral.   Forty-two was too young for “King Kong” Smith to die.

There is a way of thinking that says, “When it’s your time, it’s your time.”  I understand where this thinking comes from.  It comes from a hundred years ago when the number one killer in the United States was strep throat.  We’ve forgotten in 1850, the infant mortality rate for whites was 22%; for blacks, 34%.  A man could be cutting wood and get a splinter; he might be dead from blood poisoning in a week.  Death was a lot closer back then.

We live in a different time, a time that is still new.  Strep throat now means a trip to the doctor, not a death watch.  Frying everything you eat really isn’t healthy (even if it is delicious).  Exercise really helps.

If a man smokes three packs a day, gets lung cancer, and dies, do we say, “It was his time?”  If a man overeats, becomes morbidly obese, and dies from a stroke, do we say, “It was his time?”  If a man drinks too much and drives, then hits a car and kills a family, do we say, “It was their time?”

I wonder if God grieves because some people show up in heaven too early.  They might arrive early because someone took an assault rifle and fired on a crowd at a concert.  They might arrive early because they were poor stewards of their own body, of their own soul.

No one, of course, knows the answers.  Our inability to know means sometimes people say, “Don’t ask why.  Have faith.”  I think that’s the wrong equation.  The Bible is full of people who ask God “why,” including Jesus (“Why, O Lord, have your forsaken me?”).  It is okay to ask God “why.”

The Bible also shows us that God does not always give a direct answer to “why.”  Sometimes he does, usually when people have sinned and want to know why God is punishing them (see the Prophets).  God answers pretty clearly.  When there is tragedy, however, God does not answer the questions.  But he does show up.  The point of the book of Job is not that God gives Job answers; it is that Job asked God to come and speak, and God did.

I think after you ask why, and you encounter God, real faith begins.  This is faith that is based, not on human logic (“It was his time”), but on a living God who walks with you, talks with you, and loves you through every moment of life.

God wants us to know more than anything that life is a precious gift.  Life is to be cared for, stewarded, treasured.  Take care of your life; exercise; eat right; go to the doctor.

But above all, seek God.  He gave you your life as a gift.  Real encounters with him make life worth living.

Who Can You Call?

poor 

The great Clarence Jordan founded Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia in the age of segregation.  He dreamed of a Biblical community that was racial integrated, a common purse was shared, and the only thing that mattered was being a child of God through Jesus Christ.  Dozens of people came to work on the farm.  Some stayed their whole lives; others stayed a season.

One young family came, full of zeal for Jesus and commitment to a radical lifestyle change.  They embraced living in community, simple living, and loving deeply.

Luther said, “Our righteousness can be more dangerous than our sin.”  When we give up a lifestyle, when we sacrifice, an unholy pride can creep in to fill the vacant space in our souls.

The young father was talking with Clarence one day.  Rather humbly, he told Clarence he was learning to depend on God because he had chosen poverty.  Clarence, with the same wisdom Jesus showed the rich young ruler, challenged him.  Clarence said, “You are not poor.  You have chosen to set aside your wealth for a season.  That’s a good thing.  But you are not truly poor.  If your child were stricken with a rare disease, you would call your parents.  They would fly down immediately on their private jet.  They would take your child to finest doctors, the best hospitals.  They would spare no expense to save the life of their grandchild.  The poor have no one to call.”

It is easy to imagine the poor are lazy.  We hear stories of people fighting their way out of poverty and we imagine everyone could fight their way out, if they just tried hard enough.  Most of us, however, have never stood on the other side of the poverty divide.  We do not know what it is like to see no vision for another future.  We do not understand the power of temptations to dull reality.  Think about how hard reality can be for people who have resources.  Imagine how much harder it is for people with nothing.

It’s easy to fool ourselves.  We can believe we’ve known hard times.  I remember my uncles and aunts discussing the Great Depression.  They talked about being poor.  The truth was, they had little cash.  But they had a ranch.  They raised their own food.  They were not poor at all; they were struggling.  There’s a difference.  We’ve all struggled.  To be poor is to not just lack money; it is to lack hope.

Before you judge the poor, remember you do not understand.  Jesus said, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”  Then remember Jesus also said, “Whoever does for the least of these my brothers, does for me.”  Jesus looked at the rich and the poor, and he said, “The poor are my people.”  To truly serve Jesus is to love and serve the poor, and to do it without condemnation.

As Jesus does, he leaves us with an uncomfortable choice: Do you want to feel superior? Do you want to be able to call someone when trouble comes? Or do you want to be where Jesus is?