The four college-age guys sat in front of me at the professional golf tournament. On the way to their seats, they purchased their second beer of the morning. The special on this par three hole was any birdie made by a golfer caused a two-minute, $2 discount when two beers were purchased. After only a few minutes the guys were rooting for each golfer to get a birdie. When one finally did, they made a mad dash to the concession stand and returned with two additional beers each. One guy exclaimed, “Four beers before lunch!” Another expressed, in a somewhat slurred tongue, “I’ve got to get some food in my stomach before I get drunk.” Not being a beer-drinker, I’m not sure what effect this quantity has on the empty-stomach anatomy. I just think what it would do to me if I had four caffeine-filled Diet Cokes before lunch. In Acts 2:15, Peter was preaching on the Day of Pentecost, when some men began to speak in multiple languages. Not understanding what was happening, some thought the men were drunk, but Peter responded, “These are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day” (the “third hour” meaning three hours from daylight, or mid-morning). In other words, people do not normally get drunk by mid-morning, as four beers before lunch might accomplish, or at least get one well on the way. Yes, it was a golf tournament, and it was hot, and it was college-age guys, and the peer-pressure was strong, but one, like me, has to wonder what the future holds for these guys. Are these future teachers, counselors, coaches, physicians, public servants, etc? Assuming their beer-drinking for the day, had just begun, I just wanted to make sure I was not leaving the parking lot at the same time as these guys.
Several times recently I have heard it said that God showed “favor” on someone or some group. Wondering where this phrase originated, I went to multiple translations of the Bible, until I found in the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the following translation: “May Yahweh look with favor on you” (Numbers 6:26). And why had I never seen this verse before, I asked. So, I went to my New King James Bible, as well as a few other translations and found the familiar words, “The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). Ah ha! In the church where I spent my early teenage years, the choir often closed the worship service by singing this blessing, a blessing passed on by Moses to the children of Israel. The priests were solemnly to bless the people so that they would enjoy God’s favor, as the smile of a loving Father upon His children. In scriptural language, the light of God’s countenance is His expressions of favorable regards, His favor. I didn’t know that, when I was growing up. I just thought it was a nice way to end the worship service. But the choir was pronouncing God’s favor on worshippers. It has been a long time since I’ve heard a choir sing this blessing, but some days, I desperately desire the countenance of God’s favor, and wish it for others.
There’s a not-so-recent country song by Barbara Mandrell that says, “I’m ready to trade the fast lane for a country road.” I’ve been there, haven’t you? Sometimes life just gets to moving too fast, rushing by as if we were standing still. One of the recent discoveries I’ve made as a part of the aging process is my inability to multi-task like I used to do. For instance, if I’m driving and, also carrying on a conversation with someone in the vehicle, I just might make a wrong turn, and eventually find myself somewhere other than where I was headed. A few years ago, I would never have made that mistake. But the circumstances of my life occasionally overcrowd my ability to manage them. Life is downloading more than I can store at one time. Is there a solution? I’m not sure, but it seems to help if I just slow down a little, stop trying to accomplish as much in a given time period as I used to, perhaps put a little more time between big events, etc. I wonder if this is why Jesus made a habit of getting up “a long while before daylight” in order to find “a solitary place” (Mark 1:35); why He often “withdrew into the wilderness” (Luke 5:16); why He occasionally spent “all night in prayer” (Luke 6:12). So, sometimes, I just need to get out of the fast lane. Anyone want to join me on that country road?
Effective preaching must be preceded by effectual praying. Occasionally, the King James Version of the Bible still has a better choice of words than more modern translations. That’s why I prefer the KJV for James 5:16, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” Assuming the righteous status of the preacher, effectual praying produces effective preaching. It matters little whether the sermon is categorized as textual, expository, topical, or the currently popular term, text-driven, a sermon will only reach its maximum potential if it comes from God through the preacher, rather than simply from the preacher to the people. In other words, before the preacher stands to preach, he should knell to pray. In his book, “Power Through Prayer” E.M. Bounds wrote, “Talking to men for God is a great thing but talking to God for men is greater still. He will never talk well and with real success to men for God who has not learned well how to talk to God for men.” So, the preacher should never talk to the people about God until he has talked to God about the people! I have a copy of a cartoon which pictures a preacher in the pulpit with a concerned look on his face. The caption says, “It occurs to Rev. Jones in the midst of point #2 that point #3 misses the point entirely.” The way to prevent this from happening is to pray through the preparation, as well as the presentation of the sermon. As a member of the congregation, one should assume the role of faithful intercessor. Praying for the preacher is a vital and helpful act of worship preparation. So, whether you are the preacher or a member of the audience, the way to receive the maximum message from a sermon is to spend time with God prior to its delivery. If not already active in this, try it for your next worship service.
“The Prayer-Shaped Disciple” – It’s the name of the textbook I wrote for use in Seminary classes on prayer. It is also the name of the seminar I lead occasionally in churches. I led such a seminar in a church in west Texas earlier this month and will lead one in a church in Oklahoma next month. It is often the title of a sermon series I preach where I serve as Interim Pastor. To be shaped in the image of Jesus is to be prayer-shaped. He prayed at his baptism, He prayed from His cross, and He prayed all the way in-between. The most used verb in the ministry of Jesus was the verb, “to pray.” After all that they had experienced, His disciples requested that He teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). According to the writer of Hebrews, Jesus is even on this day, interceding for us, in prayer with the Father (Hebrews 7:25). Prayer is the priority of the Christian life. Oswald Chambers wrote, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.” The more nearly we are shaped in the image of Jesus, the more nearly the world will be shaped by prayer. Mother Teresa said it this way, “God shapes the world by prayer. The more praying there is in the world the better the world will be, the mightier the forces against evil.” At the beginning of each semester, I would say to my Seminary students, that everything you need to do ministry, properly, comes from God. So how can you minister effectively without being shaped in His image through prayer? Prolific prayer author, E.M. Bounds wrote, “Prayer makes a godly man, and puts within him the mind of Christ . . . and of prayer. If we really pray, we will become more like God, or else we will quit praying.” What kind of spiritual shape are you in?
It was a sad morning. Several months ago, our neighbors were re-located to a memory care facility. Their three sons had come and gone, taking what they wanted out of the house, then turning it over to an auction company. On the morning of the auction, the auctioneers waited inside, as the crowds began to gather. Eventually, my wife and I walked over to observe the “estate sale.” As we bumped and maneuvered our way through the crowded rooms of the house, we saw strangers taking priceless possessions – paintings from the walls, coffee mugs from the cabinets, clothes from the closets, tools from the garage – things with value beyond money. I purchased a baseball cap and Joanne bought a flower vase, simple reminders of our friendship with this couple, who no longer remembered many of the details related to their possessions. When we left, I commented as to the sadness of the situation, realizing that the longer we live, the more apt we all are to reach this point – when “the things of earth grow strangely dim.” It causes me to weep. I like my possessions. They have personal, priceless, sometimes private meanings. I know that someday I will need to release them – a few things to family, most things to the crowds, perhaps some things to the trash can. And I will weep again. When I reach that day, someone please remind me of Psalm 30:5 – “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” – an eternal morning with no auctioneers waiting outside.
Just as the elevator door was closing, three Simon Fraser University students got on with me. I was on their Burnaby, B.C., Canada, campus for a meeting. One asked about my coat with the “More Than Gold” logo on it and said his Dad had one just like it. “More Than Gold” is an Olympic ministry and was active in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Before the conversation could get to spiritual things, the door opened, and they got off. The one who had been most vocal turned and said to me, “Have an exquisite day.” I know SFU is a school with an unusually high academic status, but I have never been told to have a “exquisite day.” Good day, yes. Special day, yes. Blessed day, yes. But never “exquisite day.” I looked it up to see what kind of day I could expect. “A day marked by flawless craftsmanship or by beautiful, ingenious, delicate, or elaborate execution . . . marked by nice discrimination, deep sensitivity, or subtle understanding.” Not much help. I searched for a significant quote using the word “exquisite.” Nothing. I turned to the Bible for some spiritual light on the word and found only a reference to “exquisite . . . linen” (Exodus 39:28). Various translations spoke of “exquisite design” or “exquisite beauty” but nothing that told me what kind of day I could expect. So, I will throw it to my readers. If someone wished you an “exquisite day” what would you expect for that day” – and have an exquisite day as you think about it.
If you are a baseball fan and you ever go through Amarillo, Texas, you must stop at the Home Plate Diner – four large rooms of baseball pictures, pennants, and memorabilia, plus above average food. I was there last week, and my attention was drawn to an old, worn pennant for the St. Louis Browns. In my baseball saturated childhood, the Browns were the worst team in major league baseball, finishing in last place every year. However, two of my favorite players were on that team. Ned Garver was a twenty game winning pitcher, no small fete on a team that lost 100 games in a season; and since I too was a Shortstop, I loved Marty “Slats” Marion, the Browns’ shortstop, who later in life purchased my hometown Houston Buffs, of the Texas League. Somewhere in my childhood, the Browns moved to Baltimore, became the Orioles, started winning, and lost my favor. From these lovable losers, I not only learned the joy of the game, win or lose, I also learned a lesson in life. Satchel Paige, who played for the Browns until he was 47 years old, once said, “You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them.” Translated into a life lesson, this meant get up and go to work every day, whether you feel like it or not, and whether the day’s possibilities look bright or dim. Later, I learned this was a biblical lifestyle. The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “I saw that there is nothing better for men than that they should be happy in their work, for that is what they are here for” (Ecclesiastes 3:22). Proverbs states, “hard work returns many blessings” (Proverbs 12:14). The Apostle Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23, NIV). Baseball and life! Not a bad combination!
I’ve heard my former student, Dr. Adam Greenway speak several times since he recently became the ninth President of Southwestern Baptist Seminary. Each time, he acknowledged professors who impacted his life when he was a student, causing me to reflect on my own seminary student days. I arrived at seminary with a combination of educational burn-out and non-specific ministerial career goals. Truthfully, I didn’t want to be there, but I knew God had called me there to prepare for a lifetime of service. So, I’ve been reflecting on Evangelism Professor Dr. Roy Fish, who taught me evangelism with compassion; Missions Professor Dr. Cal Guy, who taught me that even rock-like soil would produce if you watered it with enough tears; Old Testament Professor Dr. David Garland, whose pre-lecture prayers were often as good as the lectures; Biblical Background Professors who taught me you don’t know it, until you know it on the map; Preaching Professors who taught me that every sermon needed explanation, application, and illustration, and furthermore, to stand up, speak up, and shut up; Christian Ethics Professors who taught me to write fifty-word themes on controversial subjects; Pastoral Ministry Professors who taught me to be pastoral, whatever my specific calling was; New Testament Professors who, when they got to the book of Revelation, taught me that we would someday gather at the middle gate on the east side of heaven and discuss who was correct, if in fact, it still mattered then; Church History Professors who confirmed why I was a Baptist; Systematic Theology Professors assured me that we need to spend less time worrying about people getting their robes on over their wings, and more time concerned about people getting their pants on over their tails; Philosophy of Religion Professors who taught me that I wasn’t smart enough to ask certain questions yet; and the list goes on. Together, they taught me things I didn’t know that I needed to learn, and more than that, they instilled in me a passion to continue learning, as I departed to serve. 2 Timothy 2:15 became a graduation motto, as I continued to study to present myself “approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Third generation minister (as well as medical missionary) Albert Schweitzer, could have been writing about me when he wrote: “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Were there persons who “rekindled … a spark” and “lighted a flame” in your life along the way? This might me a good time to reflect with “deep gratitude.”
In 1964 I graduated from college, got married, and enrolled in seminary. It was a year of many changes. That same year, Bob Dylan wrote what he called, “a deliberate attempt to create an anthem of change,” the last verse of which said, “As the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fading, and the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin’.” As one who preferred country music, I was not a fan of Bob Dylan, but his lyrics stuck with me through the years – years of continual change. Now, fifty-five years later, more change occurs. It seems like only a few years ago that I stood in a hospital room and looked for the first time at my beautiful, new-born, granddaughter, Whitney. A few days ago, I stood again at her hospital bed, along with her husband, Josh, and other family members, and looked at my handsome, new-born, great-grandson, Crawford Graham Kennedy. Among my many thoughts were two: I don’t have many years left to experience the changes of life, and he has a lifetime of changes ahead of him. I pray that his changes will be at least as exciting and meaningful as were mine, and that he will near the end with as much sense of fulfillment as I now enjoy. For the upcoming changes of life, I offer the little Crawford namesake, Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” And for me, I reflect on the words of Dr. Seuss, “How did it get so late, so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”