I’m about to try something I’ve not done before. For many years I occupied the Chair of Prayer at Southwestern Baptist Seminary and taught a very popular course on prayer each semester. I’ve also used those class notes to teach prayer on Sunday nights or Wednesday nights in churches where I served as Interim Pastor and furthermore, lead numerous prayer seminars in churches over the years. I’ve never used the notes to preach a series on prayer on Sunday mornings. Now I find myself serving as Interim Pastor in a church with no Sunday evening service and located too far away for me to be there on Wednesday evenings. So, I have reworked my class notes into five sermons that will be delivered on the five Sundays of next month. Why do I do this? I assume that if the disciples of Jesus needed to be taught to pray (“Lord, teach is to pray” Luke 11:1), modern disciples need the teaching as well. I did have one student tell me they wanted to take a class from me, but did not need the class on prayer, since they considered themselves a genuine prayer warrior, possessing the spiritual gift of intercession. I asked them if they had ever prayed till their sweat turned to drops of blood? The response was just a blank stare. I followed with, “That’s the way Jesus prayed (Luke 22:44) and I doubt if you have perfected your prayer life until you pray like Jesus.” The student signed up for the class and later wrote me a note, expressing thanks. I’ve often wondered if that student ever prayed till sweat turned to blood. So, how’s your prayer life?
There really is something about presence that is meaningful. Its why people visit grave sites to leave flowers and a dozen other objects of meaning. Its why people keep a container of the ashes of a loved one in their home. We do what we must do to cope with what we can’t quite accept. Somehow, we navigate what is before us, even as we grieve. Amid my own recent grieving process, I discovered the following from Ann Lamott, an author with a rather unconventional approach to Christianity: “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” During their own set of difficulties, Moses instructed God’s people to refrain from taking advice from the wrong people but rather said, “You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear Him and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him” (Deuteronomy 13:4). He might well have added, “and even if you dance with a limp, you must keep on dancing.” I’m dancing with a limp today but thank God for the wonderful gift of memory and whatever it takes to keep it alive.
We celebrated our wedding anniversary last week and were reminded that our wedding prayer of commitment was sung, not spoken, and one word was changed: “My heart, my life, my all I bring to Christ who loves me so; He is my Master, Lord, and King, wherever He leads (I’ll) we’ll go.” We began as a team and have remained that way all these years. Need proof? We’ve lived in eight cities in two states, including thirteen addresses. We’ve traveled together to thirty-two states and thirty-nine foreign countries. Since I’ve done some travel alone, my individual numbers are a bit higher (all 50 states and 59 foreign countries), but not without the prayer support of the home-front. We served two churches as pastor and wife, three campuses as collegiate minister and wife, one denominational entity, and one seminary. We have shared in five sabbatical leaves in places such as Boston; Calgary; Hong Kong; Vancouver; Bonn, Germany; Milan, Italy, and one assignment that had us traveling throughout the Central & Eastern European Region of the International Mission Board. With various degrees of wifely involvement, we have served twenty-four interim pastorates. We began singing “wherever He leads” and fifty-four years later “from the ends of the earth we have heard songs” (Isaiah 24:16). Had we known on August 8, 1964 that “wherever” would include all of this, we might have had a different song sung at the wedding. Then again, we might have decided to do it all over again, the same way.
I had two visits with doctors a few days ago: one for losing my voice and the other, my six-month physical exam. All said and done, I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in. It seems I have a body/mind disconnect. According to one doctor, I am refusing to let my mind dwell on my age, so it makes plans as though I were younger. However, my body knows how old I am, and reacts to the plans accordingly. The throat issue was partly seasonal, and both doctors agreed that I needed to take it easy, slow down a bit, and take more breaks. My grandfather used to put it this way: the mind writes checks that the body can’t cash. His comment was long before the semi-famous quote from Captain Tom “Stinger” Jordan in the movie “Top Gun”: “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash”. Besides, my grandfather didn’t have much of an ego, and I don’t think he went to many movies. He just worked hard six days a week and went to church on Sunday morning, then to the Waco, Texas train depot on Sunday afternoon to “watch the passenger trains go through.” That was his form of a relaxing change-of-pace, and it seemed to work for him. It wouldn’t take me long to watch the two daily passenger trains that go through Fort Worth these days, so I’ll need to find another diversion. Bottom line conclusion: I’ll just keep sharing “the word. . . in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) and attending baseball games in season, and other sporting events out-of-season. Then when God is finished with me, the season will be over.
In the stillness of this time and place, we lift our hurting hearts to You, O God. Thank You for life, and specifically the life of the one we celebrate today, and for allowing these family members and friends to share life with them. Thank You for the assurance that we who are believers, will once again share life with them in Your eternal heaven (John 14:1-3). Thank You for the gift of memory which will allow a continuation of thoughts about them for the next days, weeks, years. Relieve our broken hearts. Comfort our sorrow. Especially comfort the family, today, tomorrow, next week, next month, and every time they miss their loved one. Increase our faith in the unseen and the unknown. Even with the remains before us, we look up, for we know they is no longer here. They are absent from this body and already present with You (2 Corinthians 5:8). Remind us all that there is more to life than dying, and more to death than the grave. For that we say, hallelujah and Amen.
I was fortunate to spend my life adjacent to a University campus, there I sat and, there I served. Some said I was just a building – bricks and wood, paint and tiles, carpet and paneling, but I knew I was more. Many a Freshman entered my doors with anxious expressions, and many a Senior walked out with high expectations. They came and they went, generations of them, and then they brought their children back to see me. I hosted their gatherings – worship, Bible Study, and fellowship. They called me a Center, but I was also a safe-haven, a refuge, a still spot in the midst of an academic storm, a place to hide, to rest, to reflect. Some met life-long friends inside my walls, and others met the love-of-their-life. I’ve heard much laughter, watched a few tears, reflected on a few deep theological thoughts, shared lots of love. I’ve been privileged to observe spiritual growth, sometimes is the midst of pain. I’ve seen students struggle with truth and watched them win the fight. Sadly, I remember a few who lost, who gave in to false hope, who surrendered to ungodly pursuits. It’s been a good life, but now they’ve locked my doors for the last time. The demolition crew is on the way. Soon I will feel the wrecking ball. Oh, my stained- glass window will be saved for my successor, and some of my bricks will find their way to the homes and offices of my students, to serve as a reminder of our time together. But my time is over. You might say, I’ve graduated. Then again, you might say, “I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). But don’t say, I was just a building.
(Written on the occasion of the demolition of the Baptist Student Center at the University of Texas where this writer served for six years as Director. A new, larger facility will be constructed on the same site.)
Some have attempted to describe the outward appearance of a member of the opposite sex only to find themselves in trouble. I wonder if that can be done without trouble. We shall see. How often do you hear someone described as beautiful on the inside and the outside? Probably not every often. The advertising world knows that we don’t often look at the inside, thus products are sold with the macho man, the shapely woman, or the young, attractive, perfect-looking family. When a teen-age boy sticks his elbow into the side of another, it is most-likely the universal, and ancient indication of the outward beauty of a nearby teen-age girl. And when teen-age girls giggle, it might be because of an attractive boy passing by. But early-on we were encouraged to look past the outward. “Beauty is only skin deep” they told us, to which we responded, “Yes, but ugly cuts all the way to the bone.” Hard to convince, we were also told never to judge a book by its cover, not referring to our reading choices. And there was the age-old description of one who was lacking in outer appearance – “But they have a great personality.” Can we overcome this preference to the outward appearance, or is it normal? We were created to have preferences in every area of life, from food choices, to vehicle selections, to wearing apparel. Perhaps the answer is in our ever-challenging goal of being more spiritual. After all, as God instructed Samuel, “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) and as Paul asked the believers in Corinth before teaching them otherwise, “Do you look at things according to the outward appearance” (2 Corinthians 10:7)? Unfortunately, in answer to Paul’s question, we do, but we’d rather not. Lord, help us all!
One of the ways I am processing the unexpected death of my brother is by remembering the fun times of our youth. The memory verse at one year’s Vacation Bible School was Ephesians 4:32, “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you (KJV),” and Bob had committed it to memory from the King James Version of the Bible – which is mostly what we had back then. There were a few other translations, but our Southern Baptist leaders assured us that all the others were liberal. Being ten years older, I became very good at harassing Bob. In fact, I “bullied” him (in an older brother kind of way) before bullying was so much in the news. Following this VBS experience, Bob had a come-back for all my bullying attempts. On every occasion, Bob would respond with, “Be ye kind!” Obviously, his new favorite verse, was not very popular with me. A more mature look at the verse shows me that there are three things Paul wants his readers to “be.” We are to be “kind” or gentle. One of those “liberal” translations calls this benign courtesy. We are to be “tenderhearted” or compassionate, feeling warm sympathy toward others, especially if they have been hurt in some way. Finally, we are to be “forgiving,” which is the natural result of being “kind” and “tenderhearted.” As if this were not enough, Paul then holds up Christ as the example for this kind of attitude and action. Without knowing it, Bob had discovered an antidote for bullying, a lesson it would take me a few years to learn. Try kindness this week.
In the past three months, I have grieved for two groups of people. First in April, when my brother Bob had unexpected multiple bypass surgery then his recovery then the past three weeks with his accidental fall, suffering blunt force trauma to the brain – then having brain surgery, and spending time in the Palliative Care Unit dying – and then having his memorial service, I have observed two groups of folks who differed from Bob’s family and friends, in the way they grieved. One group seemed to grieve amiss – not quite right, in a mistaken way, improperly. Bob’s group sang, prayed, shared Bob stories, laughed, and grieved – but not as those in the other groups. One group seemed to lack a faith-system that provided, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” From outside their hospital rooms, one could hear loud weeping and refusal to let go of a loved-one. There seemed to be no hope for reunion, nor any comfort in the belief of a heavenly home for the soon-to-be-deceased. Then another group, while seemingly believers, were trying to make it through the difficult days by themselves, while Bob’s group was daily sustained by a rather large group of praying folks. To enter crisis, and possible death of a loved one without faith in God, is sad to observe. While not quite as sad, is observance of those who have no prayer support team interceding for them and undergirding them. I have grieved for both groups – folks who grieve amiss! The Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints (Psalm 116:15). Since that is true, should we not seek to lead all to be “saints” and then pray for them all the way to their “death?”
For sixty-six years and nine months I had a younger brother, my only sibling. To be ten years apart, and for most of our lives, separated by hundreds of miles, we were extremely close. We talked often, and in recent years communicated by e-mail and text messaging. We both spoke at our mother’s funeral in 1996. We both spoke again at our father’s funeral in 2002. Following the second funeral, I jokingly said to him. “In the next funeral, you’re on your on” and we laughed. After all, at ten years his senior, I should be the next to go. Last week, that joke ceased to be so funny. We gathered around his hospital bed and the nurses removed all the tubes and disconnected all the machines. With a career in Southern Gospel music, (where he picked-up the nickname “Breakfast Bob”) his hospital visitors were many. If I live to be 100, I think I shall never forget the moment when Tonya Goodman Sykes and Tony Gore stood beside my brother’s hospital bed and sang, “I will meet you in the morning just inside the Eastern Gate…” We accompanied him as far as we could, then released him at the Gate to the Lord who loved him even more than we did; the Lord whom Bob loved, trusted, and served. He will be missed by many, but our sense of loss is overcome when we think of the reunion that is on-going in heaven. “Then be ready, faithful pilgrim, lest with you it be too late…What a blessed, happy meeting just inside the Eastern Gate!” We haven’t lost him. We know exactly where he is, The Bible assures believers that “to be absent from the body” . . . is to “be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). We grieve and sorrow at his loss, but we do not “sorrow as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Even though we grieve due to our loss, Bob is not grieving today. He now resides in a heaven where there is one eternal day. Twice in the Book of Revelation, we are told there will be “No night there” (Revelation 21:25l 22:5). So, as far as Bob is concerned, the separation will be brief, and we will be joining him later on today. That is our blessed hope, and our blessed assurance. “Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with His goodness, lost in His love.”