What a year this has been! In January I participated in the semi-annual meeting of America’s National Prayer Committee. No one packed a facemask for the meeting. In February, I conducted my Disciple All Nations. Inc, Board of Directors annual meeting with no concerns about social distancing. In March, I had a steroid procedure on my neck without a second thought about the safety of the Surgicare Center. My spring and summer calendar looked comfortably full. Life was good. Retirement was rewarding. In April, I accepted an Interim Pastorate with great excitement. Then came COVID, and the first seven Sundays I preached in an empty worship center to an online congregation. Meetings got replaced with Zoom calls. The few remaining engagements on my calendar got cancelled when I suffered a pancreatitis attack, followed by a colonoscopy, then the surgical removal of my gallbladder, with more worries about being exposed to the virus than thoughts of the effectiveness of the medical procedures. On the positive side, my Wite-Out covered calendar allowed time for one book to be written, another to be co-authored, and a third to be in the works. I’m just glad I didn’t waste my money on a fancy 2020 Daily Planner. I have re-learned the truth of Psalm 90:12, “Teach us to number our days and recognize how few they are; help us to spend them as we should” (TLB). So, how’s your year been so far?
I had major surgery last week. I am blessed with a lot of friends, and social media has kept us in contact, but never did I expect the response from long-time friends, as what I received. There were prayers offered and thoughts shared by new friends of only a few months, but friends that I had not heard from in a long time, called and prayed with me over the phone. Others prayed via text message or e-mail. Some just called to check on me and see how I was doing. Strangely enough, it brought song lyrics to mind. Initially, it reminded me of an old camp song, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold.” Then I could hear myself singing along on Roger’s Miller’s song, “Old friends, Lord, when all my work is done bless my life and grant me one, old friend, at least one, old friend.” Finally, it was Bill and Gloria Gather’s chorus that came to mind, “Old friends. You’ve always been there, my old friends. We’ve had more than our share, old friends. We’re all millionaires in old friends.” The idea of being a millionaire led me to Proverbs 14:20, “The rich has many friends.” Keep making new friends, but I hope you have some faithful, long-time friends who still care about you, and communicate with you. More than that – I hope you are one of those to your long-time friends and are becoming that to your new friends.
I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I wake up in the night and am unable to get back to sleep. I’m sure it is partly due to the physical, since I am facing major surgery in the next few days. I am also sure it is partly spiritual, since this was happening, to a lesser extent, long before the need for surgery. Sometimes, when I wake up, I do so with scripture on my mind. Often the scripture comes in the form of a song or hymn. I remember many years ago, confessing this rather unusual habit to my mother, who replied, “My prayers have been answered. God has given you my song.” Then she confessed to likewise awakening with music on her mind. Both of us felt OK with this, since we were in good company – with each other, as well as with the Psalmist, who said, “My eyes are awake through the night watches, that I may meditate on Your word” (Psalm 119:148). Other times I awake with people on my mind. Since this is frequently former students or friends who are serving as missionaries on foreign fields, I assume they are in need of prayer in the middle of their day, even though it is the middle of my night. Even when the image is not of missionaries, I begin to pray for members of my family and then on to friends as they come to mind. Even though I eventually go back to sleep, I guess for a time, I become somewhat of a watchman of the night (Isaiah 21:11). I share this to challenge you – when you awake in the night, consider that it might be in order to pray for someone in need.
I was busy enjoying my meal in a local restaurant, when I was distracted. A family of four, seated nearby me, caught my attention. Mom and Dad were not having one of their best days, plus the two small children were expressing their unhappiness in rather loud volume. The family anger seemed to escalate as the meal progressed. At the end of their meal and close to the end of their patience, Dad threw several dollars on the table for a tip, grabbed both kids and headed to check out. Left behind, Mom gathered the tip dollars, stuffed them in her purse, and hurried to catch up with her family. In this case anger led to greed. The actions of the Mom made me think of a verse in Proverbs, “He who is greedy for gain troubles his own house” (Proverbs 15:27), and I wondered if the verse could be reversed and paraphrased – “She who troubles her own house, becomes greedy.” Either way, these two emotions are a deadly mix. Don’t let your anger lead to greed. Don’t let your greed, cause anger.
I learned a new word last week. When I received my pathology results on my medical portal, it stated that the polyps removed from my colon, via colonoscopy, were “adenomatous.” Just before my pulse began to race, I read the next line of the results – “by definition, premalignant.” My first thought was that all my body parts were premalignant. In fact, I prefer premalignant over malignant. Then I realized how often we get anxious over big words we don’t understand. In other words, if it has a lot of letters in an unknown word, it might be bad. I almost panicked over “adenomatous” before I understood it to mean precancerous. We whose profession involves using theological words like justification, propitiation, millennial, transubstantiation, apologetics, pneumatology, eschatology, ecclesiology, dispensation, hermeneutics, transfiguration, etc. should ask ourselves if those to whom we communicate, understand our words, or do our big words, frighten and confuse them. My theology professor once said in class, “Never use a one syllable word, when a three syllable word is available.” I remember writing this statement in my class notes, then writing in the margin – “not sure I agree.” My calling is to communicate, not to impress, and certainly not to overwhelm. Unless, I am speaking to a group of post-graduate seminarians, I need to choose my words carefully. When Jesus spoke, the Bible records that those who heard Him, “marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth” (Luke 4:22). I want my words to be gracious, whoever is in the audience, but I also them to be understandable. I’m glad that, in addition to the big medical word, I received some gracious words that informed me that I don’t have cancer. That’s all I really needed to know.
There was a second page turned down in the green back Broadman Hymnal of my youth. While the first page that was turned down, was the hymn “Ready” which greatly influenced my call to ministry, the second page turned down was for a hymn that equally influenced my life. It was also a favorite of my mother’s. The words to the first verse are still lodged in my memory, and I think I can still hear Mama singing the alto part as I sat next to her in church services. “Hear ye the Master’s call, ‘Give Me thy best!’ For, be it great or small, that is His test. Do then the best you can, not for reward, not for the praise of men, but for the Lord.” It fit well with the motto that my mother repeated for me every morning as I left the house for school, “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. ‘Til your good is better and your better is best.” I’m fairly confident that my Southern Baptist mother did not know that this was a quote from the Catholic Priest and Theologian, Saint Jerome. All that really matter to her was that the hymn was from The Broadman Hymnal, second only in importance to the King James Bible, with her notes on almost every page. I’m not sure if this hymn, “Our Best” was based on any specific passage of scripture, but it could have been influenced by Numbers 18:29, “You must present as the Lord’s portion the best and holiest part of everything given to you.” I wonder if there is a song being sung by today’s youth that will impact them decades later, as powerfully, as the hymns of my youth have directed me across the years.
While moving my office recently, I came to the music bookshelves – hymnals and song books, collected over the years. There it was – the green-back Broadman Hymnal, and the inscription on the front cover – “West End Baptist Church, Houston, Texas.” Significance? Not only was my father the pastor of this church, but this was the hymn book of my teenage years, from the church that licensed me to the gospel ministry. The corner of two pages were turned down. Not only was one page a hymn that was sung often, it was a personal favorite, whose words would mark my ministry for decades to come. The words of a British hymn, based on 2 Samuel 15:15 (“We are your servants, ready to do whatever my lord the king commands”), were set to new music by Charlie Tillman, another Baptist PK (Preacher’s Kid). The chorus said, “Ready to go, ready to stay, ready my place to fill; ready for service, lowly or great, ready to do His will.” The hymn was no doubt instrumental in my understanding of God’s call on my life – to spend a lifetime serving, wherever God led. This causes me to wonder what music, currently being sung by today’s teenagers, will mark lives for ministry in years to come.
Recently I had coffee with a long-time friend, an accomplished and highly sought-after soloist, with whom I taught on the Southwestern Baptist Seminary faculty. I used to sit next to him during Seminary graduations and convocations and wish I could preach as good as he could sing. Last week I sat next to a good friend at breakfast, with whom I served as Interim Pastor at a church where he was the Minister of Music. Then, in the past few days, I’ve had lengthy phone conversations with two other Ministers of Music, with whom I also served as Interim Pastor. Other than the fact that almost everyone on my mother’s side of the family was musical, I have often wondered why some of my best friends are musicians. My only venture into the musical field (other than the expected, and unfortunate tenure in the church’s youth choir), was when my mother, determined to make a musician out of me, bought me a trombone and hired a teacher. During the first teaching session, I learned the positions on the slide. At the beginning of the second lesson, I played a hymn, “Whispering Hope” for the teacher. He promptly quit, explaining he could not teach someone who played by ear. Shortly thereafter, the trombone was sold in a garage sale. The Apostle Paul, who apparently was not a musician, said, “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:6). I have observed that the church functions best when each member understands and uses their own gifts, while appreciating and affirming the gifts of others. Using the biblical comparison of the physical body-to the body of Christ, the church, Evangelist Junior Hill once said in a Chapel sermon, “If you are a foot and you insist on being an eye, God will say, OK, but for the rest of your life, all you are going to see is the inside of a sock.” So, I will continue to do my thing and affirm my musician friends as they do theirs. I still don’t understand why so many of my good friends are musicians, but I’m sure glad they are.
Last week was a medical week for me. I went to bed on Monday night with a slight pain but thought nothing of it. I woke up Tuesday with a lot of abdominal pain. A text to my Dr. informed me which meds to take. By Thursday it had worsened to the point that I went to the doctor’s office to see the Nurse Practitioner. After an exam there, I was sent for a CT Scan, which showed bleeding in the intestine. Back to the Doctor’s office on Friday morning for blood work. Meanwhile I had lost six pounds since Tuesday, and with all the muscle relaxers and pain pills, I was sleeping a lot. On Friday at the doctor’s office, the Nurse Practitioner said, “God has created our bodies as wonderful things, with the ability to heal themselves.” I thought, “Easy for you to say at your age.” However, by Saturday morning, there was no pain and my temperature had returned to normal. When the blood work report arrived on Saturday afternoon – the verdict was “mild pancreatitis.” On Monday morning I will undergo tests and be referred to a Stomach Doctor. Having preached in much worse physical conditions than this, I went on to preach Sunday, at my Interim Pastorate. Not sure what all has happened to my body, but I am feeling much better. The Psalmist said, “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well” (Psalm 139:14). One thing I tried to instill in my kids was, you wake up in the morning and you go to school or work. If you don’t feel good, you come back home. But you don’t wake up, roll over, and go back to sleep. I hope you have a good week, no matter how you feel today.
I went to an estate sale last week. I seldom attend one of these, except this one happened to be in the home of a long-time friend and colleague. I made it OK through the living room, even though I had to see the couch and chairs where my wife and I last visited with this couple, prior to his death. Then I safely navigated the den, kitchen, patio, dining room, bedrooms, even closets, until I found his office. That is where I lost it. There was so much in that room that reminded me of him, things that he treasured, and objects that he had kept. But none of it went with him when he died. I left thinking of my own offices – home and campus – books, file cabinets, pictures, collected stuff from years of global travel and ministry, only meaningful to me. When I am gone, it will all be separated and disbursed. Some will find its way into the possession of folks who will treasure it, other possessions will be discarded. Following my visit, I had two thoughts: (1) Possessions are only bad when they possess you, and (2) “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Colossians 3:2). My friend was a perfect example of this balance. Join me this week in enjoying our possessions, while keeping our minds prioritized on things above.