I keep getting out of shape. So, I’m once again walking early each morning, even before my spiritual quiet time. I am intrigued by 1 Timothy 4:7, “exercise yourself toward godliness.” The Greek word is “gumnasia,” variously translated, “exercise,” “discipline,” or “train,” and from which we derive the English word for “gymnasium.” I can think of at least three reasons why we try to exercise. One reason is for self. Being in shape, makes us feel better. Being in shape is also for others. We assume people will like us better if we are in shape. Most of all, at least according to Paul, being in shape is for God. In fact, Paul adds, “bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things” (1 Timothy 4:8). Like physical fitness, spiritual fitness requires discipline – Bible study, prayer, giving, witnessing, etc. Some unknown fitness guru shared good advice: “Don’t wait until you’ve reached your goal to be proud of yourself. Be proud of every step you take toward reaching that goal.” Work with me today toward fitness and be proud.
Do you ever wake up with a song on your mind? I often do. This morning it was a hymn by Johnson Oatman, Jr. from the late 1800s. He wrote over three thousand hymns, but this is the one I remember. “Count your many blessings, name them one by one; count your many blessings, see what God hath done.” To list my blessings here would take up more space that my normal one paragraph, so just take my word for it – I am much blessed. In fact, the older I get, the more blessings I count. I love a recently discovered quote by the Roman philosopher and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, ““The harvest of old age is the recollection and abundance of blessing previously secured.” Whatever your age, I suspect you are likewise blessed. Counting blessings is a good way to begin a day. However, we live in a world that counts everything but blessings – calories, steps, miles, pounds, minutes, coins, problems, etc. May I suggest you join me in spending some time today, counting blessings. Even if you lose count while counting blessings, that is better than hearing what God said through the prophet, Malachi, “If you will not . . . give glory to My name,” says the Lord of hosts, “I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings” (Malachi 2:2). Be blessed today and be a blessing today.
In the midst of my third pandemic book, I developed writer’s block. Wikipedia defines this as “a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown.” When we were first told to shelter in place, I was extremely frustrated so I asked God what I was supposed to do with my calling, since I couldn’t go anywhere. When I said “Amen” and looked up, my eyes fell on some of the books I had previously authored, and it was as if God said, “You don’t have to go anywhere to write.” So I wrote my first pandemic book, “Praying through the Beatitudes,” then I co-authored a second book, “Crisis Care Crisis Prayer” which is currently with the publisher. In the midst of my third book, “Praying Through the Seven Churches and Beyond,” I hit the wall. I developed writer’s block. What does one do when he sits at the computer and the mind is as blank as the page in front, while the cursor mocks with its repeated blinking? I sought out what other, writer’s said about writer’s block. Charles Bukowski, a German–American poet, novelist, and short-story writer, said, “Writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” Another writer said, “If you have writer’s block, write about having writer’s block, and you will no longer have it.” Those ideas, plus the words of another writer, the Apostle Paul, helped relieve my anxiety and get me back to writing. Paul wrote in Philippians 4:6, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” So, I prayed my way through my writer’s block, even as I wrote about it, and onward I went. If you read my third pandemic book, look for the place where I suffered writer’s block, and how I prayed through it. It might even help you next time you suffer this condition.
A long-time friend posted an article concerning the church going dark – that is, low lights in the congregation, and spotlights on the stage. Another attempt at what I call performance-based worship, which may in itself be an oxymoron. We used to sing “Standing on the Promises” while sitting on the premises, I guess we can now sing “Send the Light” while standing in the dark, and we do now stand for a long time. Talk about blended worship – how about an 18th century, traditional hymn sung in a modern, dark worship center? And what about the fellowship of worshippers? I’ve never been a big fan of organized, forced fellowship, especially when we invite the guests to remain seated while we stand over them and shake their hand, all the while asking them to complete the Visitors Card before the offering plate gets to them. How can I “Shake another hand, shake the hand next to you” when I can’t see who is next to me? I could go on with the modern methods of worship. It really bothers me when I stand to preach and the pulpit is gone, the choir has disappeared from behind me, the lights are low, the people are unseen, and the spotlights are sun lamps from Walmart. One church even insisted that my thirty-minute sermons were just too short and requested that I preach fifty-minute sermons. I have no problem with the current emphasis on text-driven preaching. I think I have probably done that for all of my ministry, but I really prefer prayer-driven preaching – from paper notes, lest I touch the wrong thing on my I-Pad and delete the remainder of the sermon. On the positive side, I’m no longer preaching in a suit and tie and the audience can better see my power-point slides when they sit in the dark. And don’t worry, I’ll put the scripture on the big screen, so don’t bother straining your eyesight while trying to read it out of your Bibles, in the dark worship center. And the younger crowd no longer has to pass notes in church, since they can now send text messages. But back to my original point – light and darkness. Do I have a text for my point? Well the Bible speaks of “light” over 260 times, depending on the translation you are using (a subject for another day). Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness but have the light of life” (John 8:12). The COVID-19 pandemic makes all of this temporarily irrelevant, nevertheless, I have now placed a target on my back, and it is time for those who prefer modern worship methods over traditional to comment.
When I read a book that I really love, the end of each chapter causes a mini-disappointment in my mind, as I get closer to the end of the book. Life is similar. I appear to be close to finishing a chapter. A few days ago, I was surprisingly informed that my retirement office was being moved to another building. My current building is being re-painted, re-configured, and re-carpeted. My new office will be smaller, so once again I am downsizing. The last time I moved offices, I shipped twelve boxes of books to the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary. I will likely be shipping several more boxes this time, as well as donating my five hundred books on prayer as a collection to Roberts Library at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, and my nearly two hundred books on missions to the Seminary’s World Mission Center. The worst part of closing this chapter is I will be unable to take numerous file drawers to my new office. I have decided that my future will not include being asked by any institution to teach my course on Prayer, or my course on Discipleship, or my course on Contemporary Evangelism, or any of my Practicums so, in addition to donating books, I am shredding multiple trash bins of notes and documents. Not having computers, my generation kept everything in file folders. While I am disappointed because it appears that I am finishing a life-chapter, I am excited because a new chapter awaits the turning of a page. Bruce Barton, wrote a profound and timely sentence in his best-selling book, “The Man Nobody Knows” – “When you are through changing, you are through.” “Lord, make me to know my end” (Psalm 39:4), but until then, help me adjust to my next chapter.
In the early days of the Coronavirus quarantine, I was extremely restless and frustrated. Even in retirement, I’ve been running close to full speed. Sitting in my den recliner I was reading my Bible, and praying, and asking God what I was to “do” since my travel was now limited and cancellations had caused more Liquid Paper than ink on my calendar. Having just read James 1:22, “Be doers of the word,” I looked up and saw on the fireplace mantle, my wife’s display of all the books I had written, and it was as if God spoke audibly, although I heard no sound. “You don’t have to travel to write another book, so do it.” Thus, was born my most recent book. It took a few weeks to write, and a few more weeks to publish, but last week, “Praying through the Beatitudes” was released – an answer to my pandemic prayer. As a big fan of twentieth century Methodist missionary, E. Stanley Jones, I have long had one of his quotes in my notes. “Prayer is commission. Out of the quietness with God, power is generated that turns the spiritual machinery of the world. When you pray, you begin to feel the sense of being sent, that the divine compulsion is upon you.” Sitting in my den, I definitely felt commissioned, even compelled to write. Prayer commissioned. Prayer driven. Prayer answered. By the way, should you want a copy, it can be ordered by title, on amazon (also available on Kindle). And what has God directed you to “do” during the pandemic?
I walk in my neighborhood every morning. A few weeks ago I saw a new sign in a neighbor’s yard – “Black Lives Matter.” The next day, a sign appeared across the street – “Brown Lives Matter.” Then “White Lives Matter,” and finally the all-inclusive sign appeared in our diverse neighborhood – “All Lives Matter.” As I drove out of my neighborhood, I saw a couple of interesting bummer stickers. On an old-model pick-up truck – “Redneck Lives Matter,” and on a late model Buick – “Old Lives Matter.” Last week I posted a “Happy Juneteenth 2020” note on my Facebook page with the comment “Celebrating with some friends of mine.” Juneteenth is an official Texas state holiday, celebrated annually on the 19th of June to commemorate the Union army general announcing federal orders in the city of Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, proclaiming that all slaves in Texas were now free. Most of my Facebook friends are Christians, however, some did not respond like it. Private messages were negative and hurtful. While obviously not all lives matter to all people, every life matters to God. The Bible is very direct, when it states, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). It matters how one responds to that verse.
A long-time friend asked me recently, “Do you suppose that in our life-cycle the call to take care of one’s health becomes one of the highest callings God makes to an individual?” I have thought much about his question, especially as I am asked to “shelter in place,” wear a mask, and keep a social distance away from everyone. All this is contrary to how I have been fulfilling my calling for all of my adult life. I am called to ministry, and ministry is relational. However, this much I know, just as Jesus cleansed the physical Temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:12-13), in order to return it to its God-created purpose, He desires that we keep our spiritual temples cleansed (“Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” 1 Corinthians 6:19), that we might fulfill our God-created purpose. Among other things, that means taking care of ourselves, refraining from decisions and actions that are contrary to God’s purpose. My friend went on to add, “That we are breathing is testimony both to our ignorance and God’s goodness. Our lives have presented a thousand ways to die, yet we live.” Indeed!
I’ve always believed and taught that you could learn from anyone, even if you had little in common with them. His name was Matthew. He was the custodian for my college dormitory. He was a source of encouragement when students were discouraged, an ever-present source of laughter when one was sad. He good naturedly endured our teasing and taunting. It was a sad day when we were told that he had died. A few of us attended his funeral. In the church’s worship center, we were an obvious corner of white faces in the midst of a seas of black faces. The funeral was a bit different from what we expected. After the service, Matthew’s wife invited us to join the family at her home. The next couple of hours was completely different from what we expected. There was a lot of food, jokes, laughter, dancing, with no sign of grief or sorrow. Noticing our uneasiness, Matthew’s wife said something to us – like, “Relax boys! Enjoy yourself! No use Matthew having all the joy today.” We left wiser than when we arrived, having been exposed to a different culture – white boys learning from a black family. That was less normal in the early 1960s, than in other generations, but needed in every generation. “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).
When I was young I lived with my grandparents. My Dad was a Chaplain in WW2, stationed in Germany. My mother was in a Sanitarium in west Texas with Tuberculosis. Due to my grandmother’s physical problems, she had a lady come into the house several times each week to assist with cleaning. Ella dipped snuff and when I kept begging for some, she cleaned one of her snuff tins and filled it with coco and sugar and taught me how to keep some in my bottom lip. We were best friends. She would teach me songs from her Toliver’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. Ella’s husband was named Dan, and he shopped at my grandfather’s grocery store. I often saw him there and since we shared names, he would slip me a piece of penny candy – “Dan to Dan,” he would say. We were best buds. I grew up loving Ella and Dan Every graduation of mine was accompanied with a nice card and a few dollars. A simple gift arrived as a wedding present. We never had a problem relating to each other. In fact, ours was a relationship of mutual respect. Why do I share this story? Because Ella and Dan were black. I wish they were still alive. I have a few questions to ask them. Things have changed. Society is different. This much is the same – “In Christ’s family there can be no division . . . Among us you are all equal” (Galatians 3:28, MSG).