I first met Jim Essian when he played 3rd base for the Fort Worth Cats minor league baseball team and I worked with the team Chaplain. I next met him years later as he was starting a church in downtown Fort Worth. Many church plants don’t make it seven years, but many are not started by guys who hustle on every play, don’t mind getting their uniform dirty, and play every game to win. In seven years, Jim’s church plant has baptized over 200 people, planted another church down the road, entered the hard fight of racial reconciliation, all this gathering in 9 different Sunday venues, 6 different office spaces, using 5 different trailers to set up and tear down over 350 times. Jim’s key to planting/pastoring a church? “Read your Bible, pray, repent, worship, and plead with the Lord to send you good people filled with the Spirit.” I know that not all church planters begin on the same playing field, and it’s not fair to measure all by one, but when Jim Essian got on base, God hit a Home Run. The Apostle Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Would you join me this week praying for those like Paul and Jim, who answered the call to “plant.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever known anyone who loved their pastor more than my wife loved hers. Joanne grew up as a member of Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio where Buckner Fanning was her pastor. I learned a lesson early in our marriage, that led to a decision that, partially at least, shaped my ministry. I learned that Bucker was Joanne’s benchmark – every preacher would be measured by Buckner’s preaching. Then I made a decision – I was not Buckner Fanning. That led me to another decision. Since I spent most of my teen-age years listening to my pastor-father preach, I was trying to imitate him. I couldn’t do that either, so I decided if I couldn’t be Buckner or my Dad, I’d just be me. Sammy Davis, Jr. expressed it this way in a song– “Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong; Whether I find a place in this world or never belong; I gotta be me, I’ve gotta be me; What else can I be but what I am.” I came across this piece of advice attributed to College Basketball Coach Don Meyer – “Be what you is. Because, if you be what you ain’t, you ain’t what you is.” The Apostle Paul said it this way, “I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Once released from being someone else, you are free to be who God created you to be.
Growing up I lived with my grandparents in Bellmead, Texas. It was during World War II and my Dad was in Germany. My mother had contracted Tuberculosis, and was in a sanitarium in west Texas. My grandfather worked hard six days a week, but Sunday was our day. We went to church, followed by lunch, then spent the afternoon at the Katy Depot in nearby Waco. In those days there were many passenger trains that came through Waco on Sunday. I’m not sure what all my grandfather saw at the Depot, but his love for trains transferred to me, plus several lessons I learned in those visits. Trains run on tracks. They don’t get where they are going by jumping the tracks and taking off across the countryside. In those early years, I decided that I would run on God’s tracks, rather than try to create my own. At night my Grandfather would take his banjo and play “Life’s Railway to Heaven” based on Psalm 48:14, “For this is God, Our God forever and ever; He will be our guide even to death.” One verse of the song proclaimed, “Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; never falter, never quail; Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.” Deciding to live life on God’s “rails” has been a good decision. Recent Amtrak wrecks, reminded me that there are times you can go fast and times you must slow down. If you try to go faster than the tracks allow, you wreck. In this slowing-down time of life, I’m glad I grew up spending Sunday afternoons at the depot.
When Jacob was finally made aware of the location of his son Joseph, he was allowed to take his family to Egypt. Upon arrival, Pharaoh asked Jacob, “How old are you?” (Genesis 47:8). In most cultures, this is a question that is considered rude to ask. Most older people don’t want to give their age. (While on Sabbatical leave in China a few years ago, I discovered that it is a common question there, and not considered to be rude. Elsewhere, don’t ask!) Better than the question of how long one has lived, is the question of how well a person has lived. I often wonder how old I would be if I didn’t know how old I was. Most days I would be younger. In fact, I often wonder if I am really as old as I am. More than length, life can be measured also by breadth, depth, and height. While you can do little to extend the length of life, you can do much to improve the breadth, depth, and height! I’m sure, with all Jacob had been through, he felt very old on the day the Pharaoh asked the question. I’ve had days like that also. On those days, better if I’m not asked the question. But, on most days, I’d rather add life to my years, than add years to my life. How old do you feel today?
Here’s a Christmas word for you. The oft-read “Christmas Story” from Luke 2, contains a wonderful word, largely a lost word in our vocabulary – “ponder – “to consider something deeply and thoroughly; to meditate; to weigh carefully in the mind; to consider thoughtfully.” “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). One of God’s greatest gifts is the gift of memory. In fact, much of our Christmas observance is spent remembering, pondering. And pondering has a direct connection to praying, and an even closer connection to meditating. In his book, “Too Busy Not to Pray” Bill Hybels wrote, “When the spirit of adoration takes over and we begin pondering God’s attributes, we soon say from the heart, ‘I am praying to a tremendous God!’ Which only motivates us to keep on praying.” I’m praying today for a Merry Christmas and a Happy Pondering!
I speak in a lot of diverse places and under a variety of circumstances. Sometimes the welcome is warm and cordial. Other times, not so much. This time, I had completed a Sunday evening assignment of speaking in a church located not far from my home. I make it a practice to know as much as I possibly can about my audience, as well as my host, so as to relate as well as I can to them. I want them to enjoy my presentation and me, thus applying the Proverb that says, “Better is a neighbor nearby than a brother far away” (Proverbs 27:10). This time, I was unsure if the pastor was impressed or depressed with my presentation. I prefer appreciation over silence, and silence over negativity. However, I was encouraged when the pastor asked if I needed a cup of coffee before I headed home. Thinking he meant he was going to take me for coffee and fellowship, I replied in the affirmative. I was then surprised as his response. “On your way back to the highway, you’ll pass a McDonalds. They serve a good cup of coffee.” Maybe I didn’t need a cup of coffee after all.
Tis the season for graduations. Many years ago, at my Seminary graduation, the commencement speaker spoke on the subject “Don’t Forget the Lily Work” from 1 Kings 7:15-22. Hiram finished the construction of Solomon’s Temple with two pillars, each one 27 feet tall, topped with two capitals, each 7 ½ feet high. Then 34 ½ feet above the ground, where no human eye could see, Hiram added the beautiful lily work. “The tops of the pillars were in the shape of lilies. So the work of the pillars was finished” (1 Kings 7:22) or from the King James Version, “And upon the top of the pillars was lily work.” The speaker reminded us that our ministry was not complete until we had done that which pleased only God, perhaps not even seen by man. Have you been doing that which pleased God, iregardless of man’s response? And aren’t you impressed that I actually listened to, and remembered the commencement speaker at my graduation? Garry Trudeau said, “Commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated.” Don’t forget your lily work this week.
Have you ever judged someone only by their appearance? Samuel took one look at Eliab and came to a conclusion – “He looked at Eliab and said, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him!” (1 Samuel 16:6) but God corrected Samuel’s opinion. With every semester that I taught, I looked over my students and resisted the temptation to play God, and decide who was going to be greatly used and who was not. I would have been wrong a few times. So, God’s response to Samuel is something I needed to remember on the way to each class – “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Every day, another well-known person is fired, or at least accused, of sexual misconduct. We are surprised because outwardly, we thought they were above the act. We didn’t know about their heart problem. For every well-known person involved, there are probably scores of unknown persons who are also guilty. It has been the case with some of my former students – accused by church members, or sometimes by non-church members. Once accused, their ministry is finished. Innocent until proven guilty only works in the judicial system. We who voted to “clean the swamp” shouldn’t be too surprised who shows up in the mire. While there is absolutely nothing humorous about all of this, I have reached a point of wondering who is the next surprise – perhaps an accusation from Miss Peggy against Mr. Snufalaflous. Seriously, God knows who is next, and also who is guilty, but never accused. Remember, God “looks at the heart.” While others are cleaning the swamp, it may be time to clean the heart.
Early in my tenure on a seminary faculty, I attended an annual academic meeting of national scholars, similar to the one that attracted 10,000 persons last week in Boston. From the time I graduated (the first time) from Seminary, until my retirement, my ministry related to campuses – fifteen years to three University campuses and twenty-two years to a Seminary campus. For three and a half years I was a national consultant spending much of my time on various campuses in North American. Three of my sabbatical leaves were spent teaching on three Universities outside of America. I believe in higher education. I am committed to life-long learning. However, when I read the report of the liberal agenda of last week’s meeting, I remembered in the meeting I attended years ago, that I became disinterested, and returned to my hotel room to watch a football game on TV between two Universities in which I had no interest. I love academia, I respect scholarship, and I agree with the purpose statement of last week’s group – “To foster excellence in the study of religion” – but I grow weary of the beliefs and actions of liberal “theologians” who worry themselves with issues which I perceive as too far removed from the practical application of biblical truth. For many years, I began every class with II Timothy 2:15 and reminded the students that (in the words of the King James Bible) they were to spend the semester “Studying” (or to use a more modern translation – “diligently studying,” or to use the purpose statement of the national group “to foster excellence”), but not just to study. They were to study for the purpose of presenting themselves to God. And beyond that, they were to study to present themselves to God as a “workman who does not need to be ashamed.” And finally, they were to study to present themselves to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, “accurately handling the word of truth.” While I respect those with whom I disagree, and acknowledge that they have a right to their opinions, I am content to present myself and my teaching ministry before God as a II Timothy 2:15 believer and proponent.
Sometimes preachers have thoughts during their sermons that did not occur to them during the preparation time. It happened to me several years ago on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. As expected, I was preaching on being thankful, using the example of the one leper out of ten who returned to thank Jesus for healing (Luke 17:11-19), when I suddenly departed from my notes and suggested the folks think of three people for who they were thankful, then tell them of their thankfulness in the next three days, before Thanksgiving Day. Later that day, the thought hit me that I too, should take this advice. Thus, began an annual Thanksgiving week tradition for me. Unknown to me, one of the people I thanked that first year was a relative of a man who was in the congregation where I first offered the suggestion. The Sunday following Thanksgiving, that man, thanked me for practicing what I preached. I was sure glad I responded to my own suggestion. How about you? Are there people you need to thank this week? May I suggest you do so?