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).
It was several decades ago this month, having sensed the call of God on my life, I was licensed to the Gospel ministry by the West End Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, where my father was Pastor. Shortly thereafter, I enrolled in Howard Payne College, to major in Bible, and prepare for the ministry. In my Senior year, I was called to be Pastor of the Robinson Springs Baptist Church, near DeLeon, Texas and ordained to the ministry by the First Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas, where my father was then pastor. Many years have come and gone, as have the places and specifics of my ministry. However, I can affirm today, serving God has been an ever-increasing blessing. Were there times that were more difficult than others? Yes. Were there times less rewarding than others? No. Numerous songs have been written with the lyrics, “It just keeps getting better” but in the first decade of my ministry, Bill Gaither wrote and recorded: “The longer I serve Him, the sweeter He grows, the more that I love Him, more love He bestows.” Had I been a musician, I might have written those same words, or something similar. However, that which God said to Ezekiel, could have been said to me: “I will … do better for you than at your beginnings. Then you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 36:11). I can testify, while the beginnings were exciting and challenging, serving God is better today, than it was then.
Do you remember the cell phone commercial where the guy kept asking, “Can you hear me now?” as he moved from unique location to unique location, attempting to prove that his cell phone company could provide transmission from anywhere? Reminds me of what God may be asking today, although it is not God who is moving, it is we who are on the move. Thanks to COVID-19 regulations, we’ve moved home. We are not in our usual places of work, school, leisure, etc. We’ve even moved from church on Sunday to somewhere in front of a computer, worshipping online. We are a people in transition and God is asking if we can still hear? God’s Old Testament people were in transition – displaced from home – in Babylonian captivity. God was continually trying to communicate with them. It was as if He was asking, “Can you hear me now?” “I have plans for you” God said (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV). In the midst of all of today’s transitions, God is asking, can you hear me now? Because I’ve been listening more intently, God’s “plan” for me, in the midst of this transition has become clearer. How about you?
The truth can now be told. While Barber Shops were still under orders to remain closed, during the COVID-19 lock down, my barber called me and asked if I needed my hair trimmed (not cut as that would be illegal). “That or a dog tag” I replied. My Dad once said the worst thing about moving to a new town was having to find a new doctor and a new barber. I’m fortunate to have found both. I’ve had the same barber for about twenty-five years. Obviously, we’ve become good friends, so he offered to meet me at his “non-essential” barber shop. “Park next door” he said. I did so, and wearing my coronavirus mask, I walked to the Barber Shop. He unlocked the door, and then locked it behind us. I noticed the blinds were still closed over the front windows. I got my hair trimmed, and he unlocked the door and let me out. We think this was OK, since I have an essential job of preaching every Sunday, but it was the strangest non-essential haircut that I ever received. One day, Sampson got a non-essential haircut and the enemy waited for him outside the door (Judges 16:19). Just in case what we did was illegal, I’m glad all the police officers in the area of my barber shop were not waiting outside the door, but rather were sheltered in place at “essential” donut and coffee shops.