A new term has been added to modern discussions. I’m hearing the term “exit ramp” used to describe everything from how to end a negotiation, to how to end an assignment. Recently a political candidate spoke of running full speed for office, and not planning an “exit ramp” if it didn’t work out. Best-selling author, Karen Salmansohn wrote, “The best things in life are often waiting for you at the exit ramp of your comfort zone.” Have you ever begun a project, believing it was of God, then struggled along the way? Ever wondered if there really was an end to a godly beginning? It’s like finding the correct entrance ramp but failing to find the right exit ramp. In the Old Testament, Solomon was building the Temple, and apparently struggling with the plans he had been given to finish it. That’s when his father, David, said to him, “Be strong and of good courage . . . do not fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord God—my God—will be with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you, until you have finished all the work for the service of the house of the LORD” (1 Chronicles 28:20). Stop looking for an exit ramp. Stay faithful to the task, and in His time, God will provide the exit ramp.
There comes a day when one attends more funerals than birthday parties. I’ve been to an unusual number of funerals lately and noticed similarities. People walked by the casket and said things to each other like how natural the deceased looked, as if that were something to look forward to. A minister and possibly a family member or two would say nice things about the one in the casket, as if they could hear. There were flowers, obviously for the benefit of the observers, since dead noses can’t smell roses. And when the service was over, family and friends would likely go to the home of the deceased and eat potato salad and ham, given in love and appreciation by friends. More stories would be shared. I know that one day I will be the object of all of this, and I only regret that I won’t be alert to experience it. But to the point of my paragraph – I’ve had a similar thought at every recent funeral – I wish I had been a better friend to the deceased. The Apostle Paul encourages us to “comfort each other and edify one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). I enjoy my busy lifestyle and my often, crowded agenda, except at funerals, when I experience regret. I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, since some seem destined to be broken, but I’ll try hard to keep this one – doing a better job of being a friend with my friends. How about you?
This Monday, December 30, is a special day. It is my birthday. I’m not sure how I got this old. Dr. Seuss said, “How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before it is June. My goodness how time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” I do remember when I was young, my birthday parties were always occasion for someone else’s fun. My parents planned things that were more enjoyable for my friends than for me. I’ve never been much into horseback riding, yet I had a birthday party at the Post Oak Stables in Houston. I didn’t much care for Playland Park, a forerunner of Six Flags and Astroworld, but I had a couple of birthday parties there. Eating Hot Dogs before riding the Roller Coaster, never worked well for me. One good thing on the calendar was that my birthday was soon followed with New Year’s Day, which featured resolutions and future dreams. Not sure what I will do on my birthday this year, but a couple of days later, I will be focusing on the future. C.S. Lewis said, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” I’ve got a few goals yet to set, and a dream or two left to dream. How about you? How about this one from the Psalmist, “I’m asking God for one thing, only one thing: To live with him in his house my whole life long. I’ll contemplate his beauty; I’ll study at his feet” (Psalm 27:4, The Message). Happy New Year!
Do you give any Christmas gifts to people you don’t know personally – like the postman, the firefighter, the police officer, others who give to you, but never meet you? For the past twenty-plus years I have enjoyed a Christmas Eve practice of giving to police officers I do not know. It started after 9/11, when everyone was expressing thanks for first responders. I share my practice with you this Christmas with a suggestion that you find a person or group and do likewise. My giving was started as an anonymous act. I would purchase a stack of coffee shop gift cards, then drive around on Christmas Eve until I saw a police officer. Without introducing myself, I would simply hand them a gift card, thank them for working on Christmas Eve, and wish them a merry Christmas. Then several years ago I got caught. An officer recorded my license plate number, looked me up, had other officers sign a thank-you card, and delivered it to my house late on Christmas Eve. I still try to be anonymous, but if I get caught it is OK. It is one of my favorite Christmas things to do. If I don’t give out all my cards on Christmas Eve, I go back out on Christmas morning and give out the remainder. Until last year, I had never had an officer refuse my gift. Last year, one officer replied, “No thank you. I don’t celebrate this holiday.” My response was, “How about taking this gift card and giving it to another officer.” He agreed. So what will you give this Christmas to someone who gives to you? Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
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.