I remember once making a request of my parents that was so out of sync with the plans for the family, that they just stared at me, no verbal response, just a glare. Some may say that my request was unanswered. It took me years to learn that my request was answered. The answer was in their glare – a silent “no.” The more I studied prayer, the more I discovered that Jesus never mentioned unanswered prayer in his teaching on the subject. In spite of both secular and church pressure to admit to unanswered prayer, I concluded that there was no such thing as unanswered prayer. One such secular pressure was in a song by Garth Brooks, in which he returned to his High School reunion only to see the girl he had prayed to marry. Her condition was such that he sang, “Thank God for Unanswered Prayers.” Even in church, I grew up singing the hymn, “Have Faith in God” in which the second verse begins with “Have faith in God when you pray’rs are unanswered.” However, that which we often label unanswered is in actuality, a silent response, that answers without words. The response is so out of sync with the plans of God, that no answer is necessary, just silence. If God appears to be silent, the fault may be yours, not His. So, what does one do when God appears to be silent? Do not assume that He is uninterested. Listen more intently. Walk more closely. Consider God’s silent “no” may be a re-direction, rather than a rejection. Re-think the request. It is possible to “ask and . . . not receive, because you ask amiss” (James 4:3).
When I was the Baptist Student minister and Bible Instructor at Pan American University (now University of Texas Rio Grande Valley), Jim Hatley was the Director of Missions for the Magic Valley Baptist Association. In our first visit, he confessed that he was not yet functioning in his job to his full capacity, since his wife, Imogene was still in Arizona, yet to make the move to Texas, since the spring semester of school was not yet completed for their girls. Jim said. “We are a team, and I can’t do my best work without her here with me.” Eventually, Imogene Hatley arrived, and I began to learn what a team looked like. Among other things, she coordinated with the churches, to provide food for the university students during their weekly noon lunch Bible studies. The Hatleys were my early ministry model for teamwork. Years later, when I was the Baptist Student minister at the University of Texas, Jim Hatley was the Director of Missions for the Austin Baptist Association. His wife, again coordinated with the churches to provide food for the noon lunch Bible studies at the Baptist Student Center. Every university student who ate free or inexpensive food, provided by a church, ought to give thanks for the Jim and Gene Hatleys of their world. Ten years ago, I was honored to be asked to preach the sermon for Jim Hatley’s funeral service. During that service, I acknowledged the teamwork of Jim and Imogene Hatley. I said to Mrs. Hatley on that occasion, “After 63 years of marriage, you and Jim are still a team. If he is with Jesus, and Jesus is with you, then Jim is not far away. It will be different, but the team continues.” Today, I will preach the sermon for Mrs. Hatley’s funeral service. Somewhere on the golden streets of heaven, that teamwork is again together, and is now complete. Among the things I do not yet know about heaven, is the type of “service” we will do there. The Bible does indicate in Revelation 7:15; also 22:3 that we will not spend eternity sitting on a cloud, playing a harp, but we will “serve Him day and night” and again, “His servants shall serve Him.” This much I think I do know about heaven, whatever type of activity we have, Jim and Gene Hatley will now be doing it together. I know we are never to hunger in heaven, but if we ever do, I know who will have the food coordinated.
Many years ago, I was sitting in Missions class listening to one of my favorite professors, Dr. Cal Guy, lecturing a group of want-a-be-pastors-and-missionaries on the pressure of perfection in ministry. He said something I’ve never forgotten. I didn’t write it into my notes and it wasn’t on a test, but I remember the exact statement. Dr. Guy said, “Released from the necessity of being perfect, you are now free to be good.” Later I would discover he was paraphrasing a line from the end of a book entitled, “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. One character, Lee, says “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” The Apostle Paul, who surely was as near perfection as anyone other than Jesus, admitted that he had not reached perfection, but rather pressed on toward it (Philippians 3:12). Remembering this quote from my own Seminary student days, also led me to wonder what my former students and persons to whom I’ve preached and served over the years, remember from my comments – not ideas, but direct quotes or at least paraphrases. I guess it’s one of the things old professors/ministers do – sit around and wonder if anyone remembers what they tried to teach/preach. Since I remembered, let me pass it on to my readers – be released from the pressure of perfection. Be good today.
Is it possible that Thanksgiving is more than a holiday – more than turkey, football, family, etc? For many years, people of faith have used the acronym, ACTS as a guide for prayer – “A” being for adoration; “C” being for confession; and “S” being for supplication. The “T” in that acronym stands for Thanksgiving – as demonstrated in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” and in 1 Timothy 2:1 “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men.” Thanksgiving is expressing gratitude for what God has done, is doing, and will do. Thus, we should thank God for what has been done – God saved us, sustained us, provided for us, and brought us to this place. We should thank God for what is presently being done – God is teaching us, strengthening us, and equipping us. And we should thank God for what will be done – God will direct us, protect us, and take us to heaven. Thanksgiving grows by expressing it. One of the marks of Christian growth is the decrease in prayer petitions for self and the increase in thankfulness for what God has done, is doing, and will do. Enjoy Thanksgiving turkey, football and family this week, but don’t forget thankfulness to God.
Many years ago, in the midst of a Thanksgiving sermon, I decided to ad lib. I suggested that everyone think of three people for whom they were thankful and tell them of their thankfulness. After the sermon, my wife asked me who my three people were. I really hadn’t thought about it. The sermon was for others, right? But I decided to take my own advice and thank three people. I have no idea why I challenged that congregation to thank three people, and surely no idea where the number three came from, but it was such a rewarding experience, I have repeated it every year since. Have I run out of people? Not a chance! God keeps bringing people into my life or allowing me to re-new long-ago friendships every year around this time, I have no problem identifying three people for whom to thank. The Bible encourages us to “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever” (1 Chronicles 16:34). So, I challenge you not only to remember to be thankful this year, but think of a few people, perhaps even three people, for whom you are especially thankful, and tell them so. Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote, “The man who forgets to be thankful has fallen asleep in life.”
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.