Last week I officiated the wedding ceremony for two friends that I have known since I was nine years old. They have known each other since they were four years of age. We spent part of our “growing-up” years in the same church – same children’s ministry, same youth ministry, same missions organizations, same baptistery, same summer camp, same note passing in worship services (we were before cell phone text messaging). When we went our separate ways, they met and married the loves of their lives, had wonderful marriages, raised families, and eventually experienced the death of their spouses. Then they re-connected, fell in love, and now they are married. I’m so glad I got to be a part of their ceremony. Long before Michael W. Smith sang “Friends are friends forever . . . a lifetime’s not too long to live as friends,” the writer of Proverbs said, “the rich has many friends” (Proverbs 14:20). I am rich with friendships – friendships that span the years of time. As we approach this Thanksgiving season, we would all do well to give thanks for our friends. Today I am thankful for Fred and Claire, my newlywed friends.
One of the most popular features in “Reader’s Digest” magazine is entitled, “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met.” One such “character” for me was Dr. William F. “Bill” Edmonson. He was a college President. I was his Interim Pastor. At the conclusion of the annual mission’s emphasis sermon, I made an appeal for those who felt called to missions – either career or short-term. Bill Edmonson responded. In my gut I felt like saying, “I wasn’t talking to you!” I mean, why would a college President, in his early sixties, resign and go to a mission field? But he was serious. He had heard from God and was responding in the words of Isaiah, “Here am I! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8). Back to school, he earned a Master’s of Christian Education and, along with his wife, headed to northern Thailand as an English teacher and church planter for three years. I attended his funeral last week. His death was an unexpected shock. Just a few hours after successful heart bypass surgery, he died in the ICU. Bill spent the last few years as a faithful member of Gideon’s International and the Chairman of his Senior Adult Living Facility “Church”. So, next time you hear a mission’s sermon, do not assume it is for someone else. The voice you hear, falling on your ear, might be that of God. And preachers, next time you preach a mission’s sermon, in the words of my un-schooled truck-driver grandfather, “Don’t never assume nothing.” Preach the Word, extend the call, and get out of the way so the God can work. Thanks Bill, for a life well lived, and an example well set.
I took my pastor to lunch recently, celebrating Pastor Appreciation Month. In the course of the conversation, I asked him how he felt the specific call of God to be a pastor, since he had previously been a Student Minister and a Church Starter. His answer was similar to mine – an early call to vocational ministry, made specific in time. I had taken a “Pastor Appreciation” survey on social media, assuming that pastors would want their church members to pray for them. I asked, “What should be the most important prayer request a pastor has for the people?” I got a variety of answers, all good, all correct, and all necessary, but I didn’t get the answer I was looking for. Among these answers, someone should have said a pastor needs people to pray that he keep his calling from God always fresh in his mind. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a man who was struggling in his position as a pastor. When I asked him about his call to ministry, he had no answer. He had entered the pastoral ministry because it seemed to him like a good thing to do. He was learning, as others before and after him, that the call is crucial. Ministry is difficult enough to manage with God’s call, impossible to do effectively without it! In his Pastors College, Charles Spurgeon once said, “We must feel that woe is unto us if we preach not the gospel; the word of God must be unto us as fire in our bones.” An older pastor advised me once to “try to do something else and if you are miserable, get back to your calling to be a pastor.” Being the son of a Pastor, plus having been pastor of two churches and Interim Pastor of more than twenty-five churches, not to mention spending more than two decades teaching want-a-be-pastors, I have the highest respect for those who feel called to the pastoral ministry. I believe Paul was absolutely right-on when he wrote to Timothy, “It is a true saying that if a man wants to be a Pastor, he has a good ambition” (1 Timothy 3:1, TLB). So, as you pray for your pastor during Pastor Appreciation Month, pray that the call of God is never far from their mind.
The license plate border on my vehicle says, “Backing the Blue.” Yet another police officer has been arrested and accused of murder, this time in my own city, and on the heels of a widely publicized trial of a police officer in the adjacent city, now serving ten years for murder. In both cases the officer pulled the trigger, and a life was taken, however consider this fact. The larger the organization – whether it be law enforcement, business, church, military, politics, or sports team – the greater the possibility of someone doing wrong, breaking the law, violating the rules, messing up. While this is sad and needs corrective response, it is even sadder that the entire organization suffers. OK! I admit to being prejudice. I come from a family of first responders, from distant Uncles to immediate family. I have had numerous Seminary students in my classes who were either former or current law enforcement personnel. I am a graduate of the Fort Worth Citizens Police Academy and a twenty-five year participant in Code Blue – Citizens on Patrol, having served several years as a neighborhood Captain. I have numerous law enforcement friends – from causal to close. If all of that were not enough, I was named for the Chief of Police in the city of my birth. But seriously folks, why do we insist that an entire organization is corrupt when one or two members go wrong? Apply this question to the organization of your choice, but for now, let’s focus on law enforcement. I believe in discipline. I believe in justice. I believe in punishment. I also believe in encouragement. In the midst of all the negative voices, I want to state a strong word of support for law enforcement and assure you that the majority of the law enforcement personnel you meet will be outstanding people with a high sense of calling and commitment to their profession. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Just a reminder that the word is “peacemakers” not “piece-makers.” Back the majority with respect.
According to the Book of Genesis, it once rained for “forty days, and forty nights” (Genesis 7:4). According to the DFW Airport weather bureau, last Thursday was the forty-first day in north Texas without even a trace of rain. But nothing stays the same forever. Just like it eventually stopped raining in Genesis, it started raining in north Texas. Thursday, my temperature gage said it was 92 degrees. By late Friday night it read 38 degrees and my rain gage had recorded more than two inches of rain. You know what they say – “If you don’t like the weather in Texas, just wait . . . .” I’ve even heard that during the flood of Noah’s day, parts of west Texas got a quarter of an inch of rain. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that God “sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). True. Most of my neighbors fall into the “just” category, but my one unjust neighbor got the same two inches of rain overnight. About that unjust neighbor, I feel a bit like Mark Twain, who said, “The rain is famous for falling on the just and unjust alike, but if I had the management of such affairs I would rain softly and sweetly on the just, but if I caught a sample of the unjust outdoors I would drown him.” Lots of Texans have been going to church to pray for rain. Of course, most of them leave their umbrellas at home! Longfellow said, “Thy fate is the common fate of all; into each life some rain must fall,” but he also said “The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.” But, of course, Longfellow didn’t live in Texas. My truck-driver grandfather, who was born in Texas and lived in Texas all of his life, believed that you shouldn’t be angry at the rain, because it wasn’t its fault, since it didn’t know how to fall upwards. Lots of lessons to be learned from the rain.
Sometimes I am easily amused, like sitting in a coffee shop, reading T-shirts, while waiting on an appointment with a friend. On a recent day the back of a nearby t-shirt read, “Together is better,” which was a good thought. Then I noticed a scripture reference underneath, Ecclesiastes 4:9, which reads, “Two are better than one.” As I was able to pick up bits and pieces of the conversation, I realized that the one in the t-shirt was offering spiritual counsel with the other person at the table. It was so refreshing to see someone actually living what they were displaying on their t-shirt. Much better than the t-shirt I saw on another occasion, which read, “I’m only talking to my dog today” as the person chatted continually with a friend. Or the t-shirt that read, “I love New York” worn by a person with a distinctly southern accent. A better t-shirt message might be the words of Helen Keller, who said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” The best thing about togetherness for Christians, is expressed in the words of Jesus who said, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Together is better. Together with Jesus is best – whether worn on a t-shirt on not.
A couple of Sundays ago, my pastor preached on Psalm 73, reminding me that I had also preached on that Psalm – several times in fact. It is the age-old conflict of the prosperity of the wicked vs. the suffering of the righteous, and the Psalmist began by asking tough questions. Make no mistake, the wicked do prosper, and our questions make little difference to them. But one must quickly get past the questions to Psalm 73:16-17, “When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me – until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood.” In those days, to enter the sanctuary, the tabernacle, or the Temple, was to enter the presence of God. There sits on my shelf, an old book entitled “Settled in the Sanctuary,” published in 1925, written by a retired pastor to ministerial students in the college where he taught. In his book, W.W. Landrum wrote, “Whether I understand or not, God does understand, and by communion with Him I shall have whatever explanation he is pleased to afford a trusting child. And that is all that my mind demands, or my heart craves.” When the Psalmist left the sanctuary, he was just as poor, and the righteous were just as prosperous, and he still had no answer to his question, but now he had a new perspective, making his previous question irrelevant. He had settled it in the presence of God, in the sanctuary. I have a suggestion. Next time you have an unanswered question, head for the sanctuary – or wherever you go to be in the presence of God – and there settle it. You may not come away with an answer, but God’s presence makes many of earth’s questions irrelevant. Martin Luther said it this way: “As long as I have Thee, I wish for nothing else in heaven or on earth.”
It had been awhile since I had counted, but the recent purchase of more books from a used book dealer, sent me back to the shelves to count how many books I possess on the subject of prayer. The new count is 481. A bit excessive for the normal minister/seminary professor, but not for one who for many years occupied one of only two fully endowed chairs of prayer in theological education in the world. Do I agree with everything in these books? Absolutely, not. Am I a better professor/person because of their contents? Absolutely, yes. They remind me of my opening words in the introduction of the book that I compiled for America’s National Prayer Committee, entitled “Giving Ourselves to Prayer: An Acts 6:4 Primer for Ministry” (“we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”) which included the works of eighty authors from across the theological spectrum. I began with the words, “If I agreed with every paragraph in this book, I could have written it myself.” Not meaning to sound arrogant, I was simply paying tribute to the diversity found in the subject of prayer – that same diversity found on my bookshelves in the section devoted to prayer. The fact that I own so many books on prayer reminds of a long-ago published book, entitled “Bull at a New Gate (1965). The chapter on prayer consists of 14 words. It reads, “Go pray! It will do you more good than reading another chapter on prayer.” So, pray or collect books on prayer – either way, you will be blessed.
In the early morning press conference of September 16, 1999, Wedgwood Baptist Church pastor Dr. Al Meredith would speak on behalf of the broken, yet hopeful members of Wedgwood Baptist Church, where on the preceding evening, a lone gunman, using 200 rounds of ammunition and a home-made pipe bomb, had killed seven and wounded seven, before taking his own life: “We will not allow the prince of darkness to overcome the God of light.” Down deep, in the center of our pain, we knew what the Old Testament prophet Micah knew: “When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me” (Micah7:8), and we testified with John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John1:5). The original book, Night of Tragedy Dawning of Light, was a record of the tragedies and victories of Wednesday, September 15, 1999, and the days following. It was a story of ordinary people with an extraordinary God, and of a church that was found faithful. It was, above all, a story of the Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting and its aftermath—a night of tragedy, a dawning of light. When the church began to discuss plans for a twenty-year anniversary, I knew immediately, that the book must be updated. For twenty years, I had observed and participated in the painful, post-shooting days/years of Wedgwood Baptist Church, even co-authoring a book with Pastor Al Meredith for the fifth anniversary of the shooting (“One Anothering: Praying Through Challenges Together”). I had seen the good, the bad, and the ugly faces of trauma, and post trauma. I had sensed it was time for an update – told by the very people who were most closely impacted by the events of September 15, 1999. The twentieth anniversary seemed like the perfect time for such an update. So, asking God to once again, use me as an instrument, we set out to find people who needed to contribute to the book, many of whom, we had not communicated with in years. This past week-end the book, “The Light Shines On” was released, as the church remembered the events of twenty years ago. Twenty years have come and gone since that “Night of Tragedy.” While many details have faded to the back of memories, certain facts are as fresh today as they were in the days following the shooting. Some who were affected are still bitter and angry. Others are still living with questions that have not been answered to their satisfaction. The updated book focuses on the “Dawning of Light” – testimonies of those who were impacted by the shooting and the events surrounding it, and now, two decades later, wish to testify to the faithfulness of God to be ever-present, to walk with us in the light, as well as in the darkness, to be the Light in the midst of darkness. We make no attempt to ignore the negative – teen-agers who grew hardened to the Gospel, and the church; broken relationships, family issues, some even leading to divorce; job difficulties, some leading to termination; even suicide. Satan takes great pride in these negatives, but he stands a loser, and a failure in the face of the positives shared in the updated book, and the light indeed “shines on.”
While two of the three books mentioned above are now out of print, all three can be found on amazon.com. Search for the complete book titles.
Last week’s hurricanes (there were several on the map at the same time) took me back to my first one. We had only been living in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas for a few weeks when Hurricane Beulah hit. Having been a category 5 hurricane, it hit land as a category 3 with peak winds of 136 MPH. The hurricane made landfall at the base of the Rio Grande River and came up the river, spanning a then-record 115 tornadoes. At the time, it was the third largest hurricane on record, killing 59 people. We did not understand any of those numbers, nor why people were packing up and driving north out of the Valley. We stayed. We watched the air conditioning unit from the roof of our apartment house blow by our sliding glass door, even as we watched the door itself bend in and out with the wind. Later, we walked out into the eye of the storm, where we saw bright sunlight, and felt no wind. Then it came again from the other direction. When it was over, I waded in waist deep water for several blocks to the Baptist Student Center, where my office was located, only to find a missing roof and lots of water damage inside. But my strongest memory was standing outside in the eye of the storm, with destruction all around me, and more storm on the way. In the years that followed, I would always be fascinated by the reconnaissance airplanes that would fly into the eye of the storm, to get readings on the numbers, and then report how beautiful and calm it was in the eye. Life is like that – there are often storms all around us, but we find safety in the eye, in the presence of the Lord. The writer of Proverbs quotes the Lord saying, “When your terror comes like a storm, and your destruction comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. . . whoever listens to me will dwell safely, and will be secure.” I guess that’s why I’ve always loved the chorus to “’Til the Storm Passes By” by Mosie Lister, based on Isaiah 25:4 “For You have been a . . . refuge from the storm.
“’Til the storm passes over, ’til the thunder sounds no more
‘Til the clouds roll forever from the sky
Hold me fast, let me stand in the hollow of Thy hand
Keep me safe ’til the storm passes by.”