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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Texas Education and My Broken Heart

I've just started working as a lab instructor at McLennan Community College's Mathematics Lab. That means I assist MCC students with a wide range of mathematics, from remedial arithmetic all the way to differential equations and statistics. The most difficult transition that I have had to make has been to understand and function within the realm of public education. The last time I attended or was connected to a state-sponsored school was in May of 2000 when I graduated from West Feliciana High School. Since then I have been well protected within the Baptist Bubbles of Mississippi College and Baylor University.
Now, however, things are entirely different. Instead of the Mercedes commercial that is the Baylor parking garage, I leave my little Honda in a lot full of older makes and models, many looking like they might not last the semester. The people I assist are not trust fund babies, nor do they have parents footing the relatively affordable bill of Texas public education. Instead these students are paying their own way, usually with families in tow. This is far, far away from the security and homogeneity of the Baptist Bubble, where most of the students are white, Christian, affluent people with careers well mapped out before them. Here the future is not so secure; here the gleaming halls and polished floors are tarnished with the realities of life in America.
The education is more for me, I think. I understand that I am now a resource for the Mathematics Department, and that I am participating in the overall goal of MCC to educate all who come, preparing them for work and life. I also understand, however, that these students are educating me in the ways of life outside the Bubble.
These students share some common characteristics, though, and one such trait is especially troubling to me. It is no small thing that many are in remedial mathematics, nor is it a laughable thing that many do not possess the prerequisite skills for higher education and training. However, I have found in my years in Texas and in my days at MCC that this school is not filled with lazy, complaining, and less-intelligent students. Instead, this lab is filled with students who are living the consequences of a broken public education system in this state and nation at large. I have neither the time now, nor have I done the appropriate research to argue my opinion yet, however, I think it is painfully obvious that many many children in Texas are being left behind. How ironic given the Act's author.
My heart aches for these bright, hard-working students who have underachieved because they have not had achievement placed before them. They have been given up on because of race, class, or perhaps even geography. Such is a damnable and detestable offense from any perspective except that of a racist and segregationist society. This must change, and it must change soon. Regardless of Acts of Congress or national achievement standards, too many are being cast aside as failures. Would it take more compassionate teachers? Yes, says Marvin Olasky. Would it take civil engineering and city planning? Yes, says Susan Eaton. The solution to the problem of Texas education is great and daunting, perhaps only outweighed by the mountain of humanity who do not even know that they have been cheated out of a necessary commodity; knowledge.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Riesel is a wonderful community, demonstrating small-town characteristics while being driven to growth and prosperity by its larger neighbors. These characteristics are considered old-world or passé by some, but it is apparent that there is something different about the people of our town. In days long passed the two central institutions in the community were the schools and the church. Although this is no longer the case in many cities across our land, I believe that Riesel still retains something of this duo-centric nature, and that nature makes our home all the more valuable.
A case in point occurred last Friday night amongst the Homecoming festivities. While at the football game the church had an opportunity to participate in one of the most important social events of the year; it was a time when members of every congregation and no congregation could stand side by side and support the young people of our community. I had the great pleasure of cheering next to Mr. Ackley, who has demonstrated remarkable leadership and report among the students. In no time he had organized a cheering section and united students of disparate ages and attitudes into one unit. Immediately after the game our church hosted 5th quarter for all Junior High and High School students. Just like the student section at the game, youth from all traditions gathered together under one roof and worshipped God together.
There was no need in all of this for an orientation or a transition; the people of this community easily made the shift from one cultural center to another. The students and adults alike retain the sure knowledge that at the heart of this town stand the schools and the church, the two most necessary institutions of our day.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

“’I desire mercy rather than sacrifice’ declares the Lord.” I have a hard time understanding what exactly that means sometimes. So often in Scripture we see the Lord acting in such a merciful way, demonstrating that the manner in which we act toward one another is at least as important as the manner in which we act toward God. However, rarely do we live that teaching out. It is much easier to ‘sacrifice’ to the Lord than to show genuine mercy to one another. Instead of reaching out to those people around us we would rather reach our hands up to God. Instead of becoming a blessing to one another we have our hands out looking for a blessing from God. Such is not the heart of the Gospel; we are to be purveyors of mercy.
Recently I have been increasingly disheartened by the conflict surrounding Southwestern Seminary’s new “Homemaking” degree. The press is having a heyday making Baptists out to be backward, ultra-conservative oppressors who see a woman’s role (especially that of a preacher’s wife) as being in the home exclusively. Whoever is right in this matter is irrelevant at this point. Instead of the vitriolic commentary being offered up by preachers and pundits alike, what the church needs to demonstrate is mercy. Yes, I understand that this is a hot-button issue for some in our churches, but consider its importance next to our imperative to live merciful lives!
Whether it is some exclusively Baptist issue or a local disagreement between two people, let us, the people of God, be known for living lives full of mercy toward one another. Then, and only then, can we understand what our Lord meant in his call for mercy over sacrifice.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Grace has been on my mind a lot lately. Random acts of a gracious nature abound when we look for them, especially when the people of God are in step with His plan. But I was wondering about the connection between acts of Grace and acts of Kindness. Both are certainly virtues of the human spirit, but I have to think that there is something fundamentally distinct about each one. For instance, does it mean the same thing to say that God’s kindness is what saves us from our destiny of sin? I think not. Rather, there is something peculiar about grace; it is not kindness but something else. Whereas kindness is thought of in terms of common human decency, grace seems to be more powerful, more intimate and more authentic than some random act of kindness.
Grace is indeed a two-edged sword. As the classic hymn goes “twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” Grace causes fear and trembling? Yes, because it is grace that makes us aware of our sins, and it is grace that demonstrates just how unholy we are in the presence of a holy God. At the moment that grace enters our minds and hearts it does two things: it first convicts us of the depraved lives that we have been living apart from God’s grace, and also extends a most precious forgiveness to us on account of that sin. Thus, in one instant, grace causes us to shudder in fear and quiver in joy.
Now, does that sound like kindness to you? Nah, kindness has nothing on grace. Kindness is not the mark of the believer – any random person can commit an act of kindness. Rather, it takes a born-again believer to demonstrate grace in their life, for only they have shuddered at its arrival.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Looking Ahead

Strange as it may seem, the church year for our congregation begins on September 1. This means that all the new committees will activate, all the new chairpersons will begin making decision, and, this year, that the grass will get cut by somebody new. Though it may seem mundane for the people who rotate off of committees and irrelevant for those nominal members who do not participate in anything outside of worship, the beginning of the new church year carries with it the promise of God’s blessing; in this year we are planning on receiving more than ever from God, and we are planning on giving back to him still more as well.
It is during this period that I think of what could lie ahead for our church. God has done absolutely wondrous things in our midst this past year, and that leads the heart to dream about the plans God has for us in the next. That is a particular proclivity of the church in the word; we can make budgets and plan curricula, but ultimately it is God who determines the events that shape our faith. Thus I can only build a framework for the next 12 months – it is up to God’s movement in the hearts of the people and up to the peoples’ response to God that will fill in the gaps.
All of our regular programs will resume their school-year schedule beginning on September 2. TEAMKid will resume on Wednesday, September 5 at 7:00. All parents of participating children should attend a brief informational meeting at that time so that we can have records of contact and health information on your children. That same night the adults will begin their new semester study. This season’s topic is Prayer: Its Forms and Functions. Come and study with us as we delve into the mysteries of what praying does and how it can change our church and community. On Sunday, September 9th Children’s Choir will resume, as will adult Bible study in an examination of the Letters of Paul. That night we will also host a church-wide Ice Cream Social honoring our new members.
There has never been a better time to invest yourself in the church than now. There are programs for every member of your family starting up in the next few weeks, and we always have Sunday School and Worship on Sunday mornings beginning at 10:00. I am very excited to begin this new church year, and am confident that if you will but give the Lord a chance you will not miss out on the blessings he will pour out on this community.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Seperation of Church and State

It seems that every time I turn around I hear more and more arguments for the separation of church and state, as though there was some physical hedge or wall that the people or government could actually increase to keep these two amorphous entities from connecting. It is true that our nation was so gun shy of a State-sponsored religion that it made certain provisions to guarantee that no such model would carry over to the new U.S.A. However, it is also true that the Enlightenment thinkers who framed the constitution (I say framed because they in no way filled in the paint-by-number portrait that exists today, they only set up parameters for such a document) sought out a supreme explanation for God, humanity, politics, and society through the faculties of reason. Unfortunately, for many of us under 45 this has most obviously failed. We are seeking to understand the world as it is presented to us, rather than setting up Procrustean frameworks that uncomfortably demonstrate our knowledge.
But what does all of this have to do with keeping the government out of the pulpit? Everything. However, it's not what you might think. I am no segregationist preacher; I happen to think that the Church should and must have a voice in the political arena, as such is that gateway to the official social arena in which we minister. You'll not hear a separate-but-equal argument from me concerning the establishment of religion nor it mirror image in government; I personally think it's all a puppet show. Here's what I mean. In all of the arguments made for the separation of church and state we hear that a union of the two would have disastrous effects on our communities. However, it is plain to me that a law-school version of this separation is completely impractical and in many ways unnecessary and unwanted. About an hour ago my church hosted its annual back-to-school luncheon for the local ISD teachers, staff, and administrators. This event is held in the context of the local church as the primary avenue of support for the schools. We pray for the coming church year, we pray for the students and teachers, we pray for their families. We eat together, we fellowship, we declare our support for the progress of education in our community. Above all, we pledge to act as a single entity, a single body in this town. Oh, and just for the statisticians out there, today we had 95% of all teachers, staff, and administrators voluntarily attend our meal.
All of this goes to say that on the practical level there is no separation of church and state. As long as both the church and the state are made up of people, and as long as the church ministers to people, and as long as God still works in and through people, there can be no authentic separation. I understand that the law students and the legislators and those driven by materialism will argue this on both a philosophical level and a practical level, my vision of the church and the world allows for no such division; we are one, and we are all called by the same God to act according to his nature and his purposes. I have never been prouder of my people or my community than I am today. May the Lord make this a blessed year in both church and state.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

God constantly breaks down our suppositions in the most glorious ways. In the scriptures God is seen turning the normal social expectations on their heads and doing exactly the opposite of what the people expect. The ministry of Jesus is a paramount example of this reversal trend; at every turn Jesus revolutionizes the social expectations of his audience. He heals on the Sabbath, eats with ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, and ultimately sacrifices himself instead of conquering the world. This model of acting against the expectations of the people seems to be an integral part of the Gospel itself.
Often our expectations of what God can and will do are turned upside down when He presents Himself, too. What we assume God will do, whether it is healing, help with finances, or whatever else, is not always what God decides to accomplish. Instead, ours is the God of the unexpected, the God of miracles, and the God who surprises us with grace. We must be cautious in how we make assumptions about what God is going to do and how he is going to do it; most of the time we get it all wrong.
I was completely surprised by God’s action last Sunday. We had a wonderful time of worship with a great congregation. The Lord has constantly surprised me in how he works through this church to breathe a surprising spirit on this community. There is a fresh wind blowing in the town of Riesel, and I am amazed at how God is acting.
Perhaps you need to be reminded of how God’s love and grace often appear to us unexpectedly. All of us, I think, need get that way from time to time. Maybe you think, like I have before, that you’ve got God all figured out. It may seem that the flame of God has left your heart and home, making faith just a piece of furniture that you sit on from time to time. Let me remind all of us that our God truly is a consuming fire – our comfortable suppositions are most often turned to ash when he acts.

Friday, August 17, 2007

If there is one thing that has identified Baptist history in the United States it has been a sense of individuality. Rugged separatism in the colonies and even more vehement segregationist policies in the modern era has been the calling card of many a congregation of the Baptist family tree, and for good reason. It was in the face of State influence that the original Baptists declared their independence, a spirit that in no small amount contributed to the ideals of democracy and freedom upon which this nation was founded. However, once such freedom was indeed attained and this new nation was settled, Baptists developed church doctrines that reflected the same mentalities. In reaction to Catholicism’s hierarchy and the State’s infringement on the people’s freedom of religion, Baptists in America began seeing themselves scripturally as extreme independents in matters of faith and worship.
This is no minor matter; it is the soul competency of the believer and the priesthood of all believers that makes a Baptist a Baptist. However, I must think that there is something we are missing as the people of God, whatever our denomination, when individualism goes too far. This is generally expressed in the “church on an island” mentality of our congregations. We see the body of believers in our community as independent and autonomous, freely choosing to participate in associations and missions endeavors. Yet when taken farther, say, over the course of many generations, this tendency of individualism sinks into the personal piety of the believer in a detrimental way. By casting off the heroes of the faith of the other Christian traditions the Baptists are in severe danger of missing out on some great episodes in the history of the people of God.
Here is what I mean. In the Eastern Orthodox Church each place of worship is internally adorned with the faces and names of the heroes of Scripture, the saints, and the faithful servants of God. When you stand in the midst of that worship space there are no stages, no long plain walls, and no single cross or other icon. Rather, when worshipping in such a place one cannot help but feel a part of the great tradition of Christianity. So many faces and names immediately draw the worshipper’s mind to the stories of Scripture, further enhancing the worship experience and seating the Word ever deeper in their heart.
Will a Baptist church ever be so decorated? Certainly not – we have a cultural allergy to such things. However, as the author of Hebrews says, we are indeed surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” to the faith. As Baptists, and as the people of God in general, we would do well to see those men and women who have gone on before us, whose lives we can imitate in piety, Godliness, and prayer. May we be reminded of all these witnesses and may we live similarly.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Looking Ahead

Vacation Bible School was a roaring success! We had an amazing time singing silly songs, making crafts, and learning the truths of God in interesting ways. The seeds of faith were planted in many lives, both young and old. Even now I can’t get those songs out of my head; I even woke myself up this morning singing “Sign Me Up!”
I have spoken many times on the importance of Vacation Bible School and similar events, and a week like the one we have just completed reinforces that argument more and more. There is nothing more appropriate for the ministry of a church than providing the community surrounding it with a chance to hear the Gospel in meaningful and touching ways. Vacation Bible School is the reason I am a believer, and for many of you as well. What a wonderful time for our community!
But what do we do now? Surely VBS is not the be-all-end-all of life in the church; we still worship every Sunday, teach Sunday school, host children’s and youth programs, and participate in missions work year round. Here is what we as a church are preparing to do this year: On August 12th we will begin two new Sunday school departments, one for college students and young adults, and one for pre-school age children. These two classes will fill major gaps in our ministerial spectrum. Therefore, now there is indeed a Sunday school, worship, service, and ministry opportunity for every member of our community. Are you a recent high school graduate looking for a local church with a relevant college ministry? Are you a parent needing Christian care and education for your little ones? FBC is the place for you.

We as a church are also planning mission trips, camps, retreats, fellowships, service projects, and other events to get you involved in your community and the Kingdom. Join us this week to see what the Lord is doing in Riesel; you will want to get involved!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

This week of the year is always one of my favorites. People are crawling over the church like ants, decorating, moving things, painting things, and generally being excited. You see, this is the week of preparation for Vacation Bible School, the most important week of ministry that our church participates in. Children have the opportunity to come here and have a great time of worship, craft-making, games, and all around silliness for an entire week, all the while being presented with the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Why is this such an important week? For starters it gives moms and dads a break every evening! More importantly, though, statistics have demonstrated that the older people are, the more resistant they are to the freedom presented in the cross of Jesus. Thus, our church unashamedly offers intense, fun, and evangelistic evenings of Bible School with the express purpose of presenting the Gospel to the children of our town. There is no cost to the children or the parents; this is a ministry of our church. We think it is such an important thing for your children to hear the Good News of Jesus that we conduct Vacation Bible School every year free of charge.
Your children need to be here. They will be entertained, they will make crafts, they will play crazy games; but more importantly they will meet the Lord. Come by Monday night at 6:00 to register. VBS will be each night from 6:30-8:00pm.
We would love to worship with you and your family outside of Vacation Bible School, too. Join us for worship this Sunday morning at 11:00. FBC Riesel also hosts Bible studies, classes in world issues, men’s and women’s groups, scouts, and youth and children’s programs weekly. There is something for your entire family here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The old hymn “Showers of Blessing” have never meant so much to this community as they do this year. A years-long drought has ended, and now we are presented with an abundance of life giving water. We have been blessed with so much more than rain, however, and I think it is due time we thought about all that the Lord has done and is doing around us.
Yes, the waters of the sky have been opened up to us, but have we noticed that the waters of grace have flowed just as freely? Men and women, boys and girls are all realizing that grace is a central and necessary part of life. Young and old are asking forgiveness of sin and committing themselves to God’s ways of love and mercy. Hearts and homes are changing in our town and community, and yours just might be next. God is moving here; that is undeniable. We risk missing the Lord as he passes by this way, however, when we focus on things that remain on the periphery of his goals for us. We must, as a church and as a community, remain focused on the Lord’s work here. What can we do that is more important in this life than serve the Lord? Let us work for God, let us build up his Kingdom and reinforce his church. This is the time and this is the place that you have been called to serve the Lord. Let none of us miss this chance to see God move

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A common component of modern political jargon is the amorphous term ‘liberty.’ President Bush has claimed that the war on terror is a war to preserve our liberties and our way of life. It is also possible for a person to call themselves a ‘libertarian’ in regard to their political leanings. But what does the term liberty mean Biblically? Surely there is something about liberty that the Christian can take to heart in this season of patriotism and songs about the land of the free!
I love what Paul says about liberty and freedom in Galatians. He proclaims the freedom that is found in Christ Jesus, but then he goes on to apply that freedom to the life of the believer. He claims that we were called to freedom by the call of salvation in Christ and that it is for the very act of emancipation from the tyranny of sin that we have been saved. This is not the end, though. At no point are we sanctioned to revel in our liberty, or to even dwell in it. Since freedom has come from sin and death through the blood of Christ, we are then free to become enslaved to one another through love. Paul goes on to say “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Slavery and the loss of liberty is not at issue within the faith community. What is at issue is the instrument of that slavery in our lives. Rather than being slaves to sin and ending up in death, we are to be slaves of love to one another! Liberty is not the point!
Let us be a people who are slaves to love. Yes, we are free, yes we have liberty, but the sign of the mature believer is slavery to one another. We must grow into this image of the believer.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Fathers’ Day has come and gone, and what a wonderful Sunday of worship we had! Along with the giving of gifts (you didn’t give another tie, did you?) and making the phone calls (you did call him, didn’t you?) we are surrounded by the memories of our fathers and their impact on our lives. This week I am reminded of my own father’s discipline when I read Galatians 3. My relationship with him has changed in much the same way as Paul explains the advent of grace over the Law.
When I was younger I saw my father as a disciplinarian, as having established rules and guidelines that should be obeyed on pain of punishment. However, as I matured our relationship matured as well. Now, rather than being an insurmountable disciplinarian, he is a voice of guidance, of warning, of grace. I have been set free to be the adult that I must become.
Such it is with the coming of grace into a person’s life. Yes, there is a time when all believers are subject to the Law of God and must be instructed, corrected, and disciplined according to what is right in the sight of God. However, we are called to mature into adult believers who are clothed with the grace of Christ. We absolutely must be mature enough to see beyond the petty squabbles of breaking the rules of the Law and encourage living a life of Grace. Here is the beauty if we do: no longer will there be racism (remember the arguments about immigration?), no longer will there be sexism (remember the arguments about women in ministry?), and no longer will there be a hatred over slavery, for all of us will live like mature believers in the Lord. We will all be clothed with Christ.
So here, in the afterglow of Fathers’ Day, let us take with us the lesson of growing out of the juvenile disciplinarianism of the Law and live in the adult lifestyle of the believer clothed in Christ.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Summertime...and the livin's easy...

Ah, summertime! The days are longer and the sweet tea is sweeter in these glorious months. This is usually the time when families get much-needed time together to do things as a family, a time when memories are made and lessons taught that cannot be found in a schoolroom. According to the Church calendar, this is also the season of learning about ‘the saved.’ It is in this time that the church emphasizes time together as a church family, trips to camp and Bible School, all of which serve the same purpose as your own family vacation – we need to get to know one another like family to truly be the family of God.
Our church is trying to do just that this summer. Amongst all of the other activities and camp trips that we’ll be taking, FBC Riesel will be creating a new Church Directory. So many new families have come into our community and church that we need some way to put faces with names. This is the perfect chance to accomplish just that. If you are a member of our church and haven’t been in a while, please be sure to sign up to have your picture taken – if nothing else it will give you an opportunity to see all the great things that the Lord is doing in this community!
Summer Line Up for the FBC Riesel Children’s Ministry
Wednesday nights (Starting June 13): The Big Game and Kid’s Kook – Kids will be able to play games and learn Biblical truths and then have a fun time learning to cook some great dishes and learn to apply God’s wisdom in a new area – the kitchen!
Sunday Nights: Children’s Choir – The children are working on a musical to be performed at the end of June. Come and join us each week at 6:00 for a fun time of praise!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

It is easy as a pastor to fall in love with particular New Testament passages. So many of them are dear to the believer’s heart that it is difficult to choose a favorite. Which is more precious? The birth narrative? The miracles? The resurrection? The entire New Testament is to the believer a love note written from God to his beloved. But what about the Old Testament? Do we dare have personal favorites concerning these books? It seems that the events of the Old Testament (creation, Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah) are more the subjects of intense debates rather than personal reflection and devotion.
I must say that my all-time favorite Old Testament passage is found in a most peculiar place: Proverbs chapter 8. I was first turned on to this passage in the fall of 2005 when I began to study the book of Proverbs more closely. I have found that this passage is an excellent connection of New Testament spirituality with Old Testament style. This is no Pentecost, nor is it a resurrection account. Rather, this is a hymn to the Wisdom of God. Central to the theme of the chapter is that Wisdom is the prerequisite to God’s creation. Before mountains or rivers, people or animals, the principles of Wisdom were established.
Though this is not the first place one should turn in witnessing to others, (it probably wouldn’t make a good sermon, either!) for the mature Christian I think this passage has much to teach. Primarily, though, it is the lesson of purpose in life that we should learn. The world is indeed orderly and operates with certainty and efficiency. We contribute nothing to gravity or magnetism, and yet they work perfectly! We, as people, are the actors on this grand stage of ordered life. We are the beneficiaries of the wisest establishment ever. This is not a chance happening; we are here for a reason.
What is that reason? Well, primarily it is to glorify God through our free acts and decisions. However, on the more minute level, we are to choose wisdom to determine our part in the grand scheme of God. Since Wisdom is the language that this reality has been written in, it is crucial that we, as the crown jewel of this creation, should attain wisdom and live as wise men and women. May that be how we are described in days to come – as a people who are wise.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Contrast of Slavery and Adoption

In preparation for this week’s worship service, and in continuing reflection of the Baccalaureate and Commissioning services for our graduates, I have been confronted with a particular dichotomy in Scripture. When Jesus is sending his disciples into the world he promises them the Comforter who will be the Spirit of Truth, who will guide them in their ministries. This Spirit is contrasted in Romans by Paul as the “Spirit of Adoption” rather than the “Spirit of Slavery.” Why would such a contrast be made? And what possible implications for 21st century disciples could this argument hold?
In days long past, when slavery was still an accepted form of cultural and economic status, many new Christians found themselves as household and agricultural servants. They were completely at the mercy of the master, who could at a moment’s whim have them flogged or killed. So harsh was the punishment of some slaves at the hands of the aristocratic ancients that all slaves lived in fear of unjust and cruel treatment.
What is more, there is Biblical argument that the Law itself, both to the covenantal Jew and the ignorant Gentile, was a bane to righteousness. Paul himself claims that the Law brought judgment and death on the people under the Law. They lived in a constant bondage to the life-script that was proscribed in the Mosaic Law; they were constantly under the threat of God’s punishment for sins for which they could not atone.
But Paul offers something completely different. He contrasts the “Spirit of Slavery,” which, according to earlier arguments, can be associated with the law, and the “Spirit of Adoption” which is something new entirely. With one simple turn of phrase Paul has taught the fundamental work that Christ accomplished for God’s people: by faith in Christ we are not bound to the constant fear of punishment as those under the Law, but instead are adopted children of God. Unlike the slaves of old, who earned no retirement or inheritance, the adopted children of God work as children do – they participate in the actions of the family and are due an inheritance.
This is the model that the children of God in any generation should follow. We are not slaves to ritual or even to the Law. Such bondage would have us living in fear for our lives and our eternal salvation. Rather, we are filled with the Spirit of Adoption, the one who constantly teaches us how to act as a proper child of God. May none of us be timid, may none of us live in fear or bondage. We are children of the Great Father through Jesus Christ. And soon we will all indeed share in his great inheritance.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Baccalaureate Address Delivered to Riesel High School, 5.20.07

Good evening, graduates. I hope that word has not lost its power for you yet. I know that with senior supplies, invitations, exams, pictures, and all of the other stuff that goes with your completion of high school, the term ‘graduate’ could indeed become something reviling. But for tonight let us revel in the word. Let the scent of memory fill us, and let the lightning of possibility course through us. For that is what all of this is about – remembering the moments that have brought you to this place, as well as trying to fix your gaze on the potential and opportunity that you now hold.
But there is something more to tonight than just remembering. Yes, there will be a tear-jerking slideshow of the graduates, and there will be more congratulations than you can shake a stick at. This event, this baccalaureate, is a worship service. All the people in this community have come to support you, not as they do at a football game, but as members of a community of faith. This service is a time of commissioning and prayer – it is a symbol of what faith means to your people, so that perhaps you will take faith along with you wherever you go.
History tells us that in the first instance of Baccalaureate, held over six hundred years ago at Cambridge University, was a service of sermons delivered by all the candidates for graduation. Each sermon was graded and entirely in Latin. So, to keep with tradition, we will ask each of the graduates to come up and deliver their Latin sermon. To be fair, let’s go alphabetically: Reese Aycock, you’re up first.
Needless to say this event has indeed changed in the last six hundred years, and today it has a much more relaxed feeling to it. It is a night to give advice and prayers. So, in the interest of time, I will combine my advice and my prayers for you all into one brief message.
First, be suitably overwhelmed. You are all approximately the same age and have now met the same level of academic achievement that this nation thinks is necessary. But keep in mind some examples of just what you’re getting yourself into now: by their mid twenties Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein had both already written and developed the principles of Physics. By the time he was 30 Alexander the Great had conquered the known world. Mozart wrote all of his violin concertos by 22. The world that you are about to enter, whether it is college, work, or military service, is big and impressive. Great men and women have stridden this patch of land before you, and you should indeed be suitably overwhelmed. Go ahead and relax between now and graduation; because as soon as the ink is dry on your diploma the world has moved on.
Secondly, see the big picture. 4 million people just like you are graduating this year. Each of them comes from a family, has a life of their own, have issues and troubles not unlike yours. There are 17 million people already enrolled in college. There are billions in this great nation. Each person has to make a living, become educated, and have a family. That’s a lot of connections. You are entering a world of competition, of corruption, of war, and of freedom. The big picture is that you are relatively on your own to carve out what life you want to have in this country. You are responsible for the things you know and do. You are responsible for your own success or failure from here on out. The big picture is a scary place, one in which you can surely get lost.
My goal is not to frighten you or worry your parents even more. Instead, I would offer you hope as you take these uncharted steps forward. What a shame it would be if all of this life was just a random scraping for food and resources. What a depressing place this earth would be if all there was to life was retirement. What a dearth of hope there would be if all we were was accomplished by the end of high school. Instead, there is meaning to life. There is a God who created and cares for you as you go your way. In John chapter 14 Jesus is graduating his disciples to the great journey ahead of them. He has taught them as long as he could, and now it is time for them to go their own way. He could have easily written his commands down in stone and expected the church to obey, but he did something quite different. He says “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
The Lord will not leave you in this world as orphans. Wherever you will go you will be just one breath from God. How marvelous a statement is that! God resides within you! This is more than the promise of John chapter one, where the Logos comes and dwells among us, this is God, the Logos, dwelling WITHIN US. Consider the implications of God going with you into the world and guiding you in truth. The big picture cannot handle this statement. The world that you are entering does not understand that you are carrying the most potent disease ever placed in the heart of humanity. You carry with you the knowledge of the truth, the truth which sets men free.
And it is your duty, and men and women of the Gospel to preach that freedom. Your lives must be living sermons to all you encounter, testifying to the truth of God. Set them free, graduates, from the chains that bind them to misery and hopelessness. Be people who show the Way to those who cannot find it. Be ready in all your choices to say “here, look and see God, the one who is with me always.” For he hasn’t left them. And he will not leave you. You are no longer an orphan as the world would tell you that you are; you are a child with parent immortal. I am reminded of a hymn which’s third verse makes me rejoice – “The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days/O may thy house be mine abode and all my work be praise/There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come/ no more a stranger nor a guest, but like a child at home.”
May your life be the bliss and peace of being a child in the house of the Lord. You are no longer a stranger nor a guest wherever you find yourself; you are with the Lord and he is with you. He will not leave you, nor forsake you. He will be but a moment from your sight.
Be impressed with the young-age accomplishments of Alexander and Newton. But I am more impressed that people such as yourselves carry a wisdom and a power greater than these with you – you carry your God. So graduate; go into all the world and do great and mighty things. Carry with you the memories of this place and these people. But rest in the calm assurance that your God is with you, and will remain with you until the end of all things.
May the blessings of the Lord Jesus Christ be upon us all in the days to come.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Speech Delivered to Oglesby High School Sports Banquet

On a cold and snowy morning in 160ad a sea of Barbarians crested the top of a rise just outside of Germany’s southern border. They howled in unintelligible languages and beat their spears and clubs against the crudely fashioned shields on their arms. They wore matted fur and skins from whatever beast they could find and their beards made them look more beastlike than even these poor animals.
Across the valley to the south were formed the gleaming ranks of the 3rd and 4th legions of Rome, their gold and red armor glinting in the winter sunlight. Not a man moved nor broke his ranks; each stood like a monolith to order and discipline. Their spears were neatly tucked inside their arms, their emblazoned shields resting on the ground at the ready. Their hatred for their foe was only surpassed by their love for Rome, and by their love for their commander, Maximus Decius Meridius, but you may know him as Gladiator.
You may not have stood on a hill facing your enemy as these men did, but you have lined up beside one another and fought for just one more yard. You have huddled together before a fight and cheered one another on to score more often and with greater authority than your opponent. You have run the good race and swung clubs, rackets, and your very bodies with reckless abandon to achieve victory. You are all gladiators.
The famous words of Maximus find us at that battle field thousands of years ago – “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Surely he understood the far-reaching effects of our choices and actions in this life and how they can shape us for all time. His men were valliant and true – they fought for their beloved general and to protect their homelands. They were disciplined and smart.
What does all of this have to do with an outstanding group of men and women about to leave the happy confines of this place and the competition that it offered? Only everything. The battles that you have fought here and the achievements that you have accomplished and the awards you have earned this very evening are testimony to the truth of your character. You are willing to commit yourself to something difficult. You are willing to train your body and your mind to be faster, stronger, and sharper than before. You have become disciplined and smart. You have become a warrior.
The lessons that you have learned whilst training your body and mind are what will echo in the lives you are about to lead. You will find it certainly true that the competition for education, jobs, a family, and for success in life is the same competition that you found in the gym, or on the gridiron, or on the track. You will most certainly find that the true competition is with yourself. So I offer you three words of advice this night to carry with you. You have undoubtedly learned these lessons well, but perhaps hearing them again will remind you of their importance.
First, understand the battle. I learned through my years as a lineman that I would never be the biggest man I faced, nor would I ever be the quickest. What came as a great revelation to me was that I indeed did not have to be in order to win. Rather, I discovered that I could learn better technique, better foot movement, and better mental preparation and be the best on the line. Knowing that revealed to me that the competition was absolutely not with the man lining up opposite me; the test was already passed or failed in my preparation.
Remember that the battles you will face are all within yourself. Your preparation for life through education, discipline, and training are the battlefields worthy of your energy and time. Leave the petty competitions for prestige and fame to those who are too simple to understand this truth. Be the man or woman who seeks greatness within himself or herself. Don’t waste time fighting over things that you cannot change; instead battle to ever improve your spirit, your mind, and your contribution to the world.
Secondly, play as a team. No sport that you could participate is a solo experience. Sure, you may compete in number 1 singles at tennis, or you might be the only person responsible for where your golf shot lands, but never think that you are in this alone. Whether the sport is basketball or Macroeconomics, you absolutely must play as a team. Without a group of people working toward the same goals as you, you have no one to learn from, no one to mentor, and no one to rely on. The legionnaires were helpless away from their formation. Their armor could not protect them from attack from all angles, nor could they be sufficiently trained to always guard their own backs. Their success was determined by their ability to work together and as a unit.
You also will need to work with people when you leave this place. You will not be dressing with them, or necessarily bleeding with them, but you will be put together with other men and women who are depending on you to achieve a goal. Play along side them and contribute those things that you are uniquely good at. For we are indeed all members of a body in society; find your function and do that function as best you can.
Finally, go out and play. All the speeches in the world will not pry your bodies from the seats of youth. Instead it is only the choice that you make to get up and do something that will move you from this night. Yes, you are to all be commended for your achievements this year, but do not let those achievements sit idly on a shelf tomorrow; let them motivate you to greater things in coming days. You must go out and play the game that is life. You must have the courage to try, to succeed, and to fail. Teddy Roosevelt writes that
"It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat."
The critics do not count; the finger-pointers matter little; it is the warrior who dares to stand in the arena to try and try and try again that knows the joy of life! I charge each man and woman here to have the uncommon courage to transform themselves into the man and woman that would indeed dare to fight for their dreams, to challenge their own limitations, and to advance with confidence in the direction of their dreams. They will be met with a success not found in common people, but, like the victors on the field or track or court, they will prevail in all their endeavors.
You sit tonight on the eve of that great battle between the well-ordered discipline of Rome and the chaos of barbarism. You have been suitably recognized and decorated tonight. Your bodies and minds have been toned and sharpened. What will you do now? This is when next season begins. Whether you are leaving this school or reloading for another year, leave this place this evening with the knowledge that life imitates the sports you play. You can dominate in both realms if you will but strive to be more than you are. Be that gladiator in the arena with blood and dirt and sweat on your face. Be a champion at what matters in life. May the blessings of God be upon you and your families in all the days to come.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

In 1992 I had the great pleasure of reading the dissertation of a good friend who was completing his Ph.D. at North Carolina State University. His research had focused on certain microchips that could interpret light patterns on the input side and sent nerve signals on the output side. The result was an implantable device that allowed partially blind animals to see enough to function. Although this research is by now quite outdated and outmoded, it represented a great step in helping the blind among us, and still offers hope today.
There is another form of blindness that unfortunately cannot be cured with microchips or corrective surgery. No, there is a blindness that doesn’t even tough the eyes, but rather affects the heart. It seems that the eyes of the people of this land are wide open and can see anything that happens to them, yet the eyes of their hearts are closed and indeed blinded to the reality of life. There is more to this world and to this thing called living than interpreting light patterns and sounds and smells into an experience; there is meaning and purpose and a most definite end to those taciturn things.
Blindness of the heart comes with several most apparent consequences. It is through this deficiency that we loose sight of our purpose as creatures of God. Instead of fulfilling the roles that God has set us aside for we pursue selfish gain and self-fulfillment. We are blind to the cause that we are called to live for, that is, for God’s glory and for the development of his Kingdom. Also, blindness of the heart causes us to be ignorant of the value of things in life. We loose sight of love, of hope, of joy when our hearts are darkened. We cannot see, hear, nor smell the happy things of a realized humanity – we are left to sink deeper and deeper in to the dark of loneliness and isolation. Finally, with the loss of our heart’s eyes we loose the sense of the riches to which Christ has saved us. We forget the glory of Christ’s righteousness and love. We can be so blinded that we forget our own God.
So what hope is there for a people of blinded hearts? Only the gift of God! Paul prays for his children in Ephesus that they would receive a spirit of wisdom and a revelation as they come to know Christ, that indeed the eyes of their hearts could be opened. It is only though faith in Christ Jesus that people can have the blinders removed from their hearts to see the meaning, joy, and blessed life of those who love him and serve him. May we be such a people who seek the Lord and serve him, having had all blindness removed from our hearts and minds.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

In the fall of 2000 I was picking up my textbooks in the Mississippi College bookstore when an interesting paperback caught my attention. Its title was “Help! I’m afraid of the Proverbs 31 Woman!” While humorous, this seems to be the general feeling of a lot of women on Mothers’ Day, which is usually when Proverbs 31 is read in church. The fear comes from the description of the “virtuous woman” who is up before dawn, makes clothing and food, conducts business, and is generally extremely busy all day. Modern-day Christians read this passage and are confounded by the relative impossibility of such a life.
We must keep in mind that this image of a woman’s life comes from a culture not our own. For example, the passage refers to the virtuous woman as managing her servants well. There are no servants in our homes these days, and haven’t been for several generations. Furthermore, not too many of our ladies make their own clothing or plant vineyards (but for those who do, you are amazing!). Instead, our culture today is one of department stores and pre-cooked food and business and baseball games and higher education. So are we then left on Mothers’ Day reading a passage that has nothing to do with our mothers? Certainly not!
Proverbs 31 is a wonderful chapter of Scripture for the modern woman to consider valuable. Notice that her work is valuable not just for the spirit of her household, but for its income as well. Her employment is as wide-ranging and important as her husband’s; she buys and sells land, she sells material and produce, and she is described as a ‘provider.’ What better passage for our mothers today? All of the language of economy, wisdom, value, and faith that are normally reserved for men in the Scriptures are here applied to the strong and beautiful mother in our household.
Let us realize that the value of a mother is indeed not just limited to the spiritual nurturing that she provides husband and children. Instead, let us understand that a mother’s work of provision, education, and income-earning work is just as valuable as her husbands. Let Mothers’ Day not be the one day a year when we think of mom as having some extra value to us – let this day be one where we celebrate the “virtuous woman” who blesses us each day.

Monday, April 30, 2007

A friend of mine has a dog that recently gave birth to a litter of eight beautiful puppies. Lesley and I have spent several afternoons watching the little rat-sized critters squirm around and have laughed at the little sounds that they make. They’re eyes aren’t open; neither are their ears. They are so totally vulnerable that any life outside the crate that holds them would be mortally dangerous. However, whenever these little ones get hungry they have no difficulty in finding mamma. They are so familiar with her scent that they need no eyesight or hearing to identify her and go to her.
Jesus told his disciples that he was soon to leave them, and that where he was about to go none of them could follow. He left his closest children with a simple command: love one another. As much as Jesus loved and cared for us, we are to love and care for each other. In fact, we are to be identified by our love. No other sense can detect Christianity in a person – there is no “Jesus smell” or “holy sound” that emanates from a believer. No, the only way that we can be identified is through our love for one another.
Like the puppies looking for their mother, believers have a distinguishing characteristic that identifies them as believers in Jesus Christ: love. We must demonstrate the same compassion that Jesus demonstrated for us on the cross to our neighbors, and we absolutely must speak with love in the public square. We have no other means of identifying one another – no passwords or handshakes or winks, all we have is the love, charity, and compassion that sets us apart from the rest of society.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Every so often I will be in the room when Lesley, my wife and our church’s Children’s Minister, is leading the children in the song “I Just Wanna’ Be a Sheep.” It is impossible for me to communicate to you the sheer cuteness of the hand motions that accompany this short rhyme, but every time I hear that song something happy wells up inside me and I cannot help but grin and the rampant sillyness.
Our sheep-ness is central to many passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. We are the sheep of the Lord’s field in Psalm 100, and we are caused to lie down in green fields in Psalm 23. In John 10 we are referred to as Jesus’ sheep, insomuch as we hear his voice and follow him.
I find it amazing that in our society no one has challenged this metaphor. Surely someone has noticed that being called a sheep is not the highest compliment that can be paid someone! Sheep are some of the dumbest creatures on this earth, perhaps second only to chickens. And yet we are repeatedly referred to as a flock of mindless sheep going astray, being attacked by wolves, and lying down in random places all through the Scriptures! Is no one alarmed?
I would hope not – we are the sheep of a very special pasture. The believers in Jesus Christ, the sheep of his field, are part of a flock that will never be snatched from the Shepherd’s care. They are the followers of the voice of the Shepherd who will indeed lead them to still waters and green grass.
Perhaps sheep are rather dim-witted. I would rather be dim-witted and follow the Lord of Heaven than have all wisdom and knowledge and follow the road to my own demise.
Let us then be sheep. Let us first understand that we are not as smart as the Shepherd, and that he has our safety and prosperity in mind. Let us also acknowledge that we must follow our Shepherd wherever he will go. We cannot do this alone; sheep need a shepherd as much as they need a flock.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Who We Are

What a marvelous season it is in the Lord’s Church. We stand today on the hem of Easter, still basking in the afterglow of the Resurrection. Not but a week ago we praised and celebrated the anastasis of our Lord. We baptized three new believers and welcomed them into our fellowship; we took the Lord’s Supper and participated in the breaking of his body and the spilling of his blood. Everything about Easter and what we did last Sunday morning was about remembering. We remember the sorrow of the crucifixion and the joy of the resurrection; we remember the Last Supper that the Lord shared with his disciples. Surely the fellowship of the saints in this place will remind our new believers of the commitment that they have made and the love and hope that comes with being born again! You see, everything about our worship, especially Easter, has some element of remembrance in it – we include our voices and hearts in the great story that has been playing out for thousands of years, lifting our eyes to the same heavens that our forebears gazed into to see the glory and splendor of God.
We remember. But it is not just that we remember last Sunday morning; in fact, many here can not remember beyond the nap they’re taking right now. Some have a hazy recollection of the events of the previous week, while others still can remember the very details of seven days ago as though they were the present. The various qualities of our memories tend to make us devalue it. In fact, remembering anything in our society is quickly becoming a non-essential quality. Consider that no longer do you need to remember phone numbers – you have names listed in your phones. No more do you need to remember calendar events – your palm pilot or smartphone will remind you of everything you’re doing. Even students are losing the necessity of memory – when Wikipedia is available, why should students take notes? Google has even revolutionized the sermon – soon laptops will be as plentiful as Bibles in the sanctuary. The irony of all of this is that we remember less and less in an age when everything is preserved, archived, and catalogued.
This is not a condemnation of computers or of our cultural forgetfulness. However, I encountered such a contrast to that cultural proclivity recently that I’m still not sure I fully appreciated it. Along all the roads, sidewalks, and paths in Greece stand little shrines. These are mailbox-sized objects filled with candles and icons of the Eastern Church. Each of them stands at a place where something memorable happened to someone. No one necessarily died, but something happened at that spot that a Greek wants to remember always. In our travels we must have seen thousands of the little shrines, each of them a milestone in the life of someone I will never meet. I have to wonder what happened there – was it a near death experience? Perhaps it was an epiphany, or maybe it was a breakup. What was more important than the shrines to me was the sense of collective memory about the place. Everyone wanted to remember; the cultural identity of the people was bound up in recalling the momentous events that had brought them to where they are. I was jealous. I come from a place where yesterday is outdated and worthless. I come from a generation who cannot put World War II, Korea, and Vietnam in chronological order. I come from a people with no memory.
Why is memory so important to the Greeks and not to us? In fact, now that I think on it, is memory really not important to me? Heavens no! I want to remember, I want to retain a piece of myself from yesterday so that I will be connected with the deceased and can teach the next generation about those who have gone on before. So we find ourselves in this land wanting so desperately to hold on to memories while at the same moment losing all of it in the name of progress and convenience.
We hear something in our souls like memory. We see images of lives we have not lived in our minds and we subconsciously agree that they are right and true and, in a way, that we were in fact there. Plato calls this trait anamnesis. He bases it on a non-Christian idea concerning the pre-existence and pre-cognition of the soul before birth. His explanation of memory is collective; since we have experienced things in a community of spirits before inhabiting the world, we all recall certain things that draw us to one another. Without disrespecting the bountiful scholarship done on Plato even today, I must consider only one aspect of such a philosophy to be true. It is the sense of community that binds what communal recollection we have. I would go even one step farther to claim that the history of God, the very Gospel itself is our collective memory, that we share with all humanity the both the stain and the childlike memory of the fall. More than that, we all bear with us the mark of the Creator. Theologian Bultmann calls this the “faint recollection of Eden.” Maybe this is a collective unconscious; perhaps this is a shared human feeling of regret that things are not the way that they should be. We hear a cry to fulfillment and completion in our ears and souls. The telling of the story of God moves in us and, as that pulpit prince Fred Craddock says “the message of the text is like a seed; it carries its own future in its bosom.”
Then let us remember together, you and I. Let us recall the passages long entrenched in our memories and relive the Genesis narrative. Let us stand before Pharaoh and demand that we be let free. Let us wander in the wilderness with our people and mourn our unfaithfulness to God. Let us look at the book called Joshua and read of a memorial to our God. In chapter four the Lord commands the Israelites to erect a monument to commemorate the long-overdue crossing of the Jordan by God’s people. This is no Washington monument, nor is it the 9/11 memorial; this is a crude pile of rocks on the bank of the river. However, the significance of that pile of rubble is of even greater magnitude than these. The purpose of the monument is to allow parents to tell their children of the great and mighty thing that the Lord had done at that place. When generations had passed and the elements had weathered that pile of stones, there would still remain enough rock there to move a child to ask his family who erected that pile, and why. In that most teachable of moments that child would hear a story of faithlessness, redemption, trust, and deliverance. In that moment the child and the family alike would share a collective memory of an event they had not seen. They would then be as we are – participants in the story of God.
We remember. The monuments in Greece must be something like this. So that when a child sees his father pause his gaze on a little shrine he may wonder and ask what has happened here. The candles that burn and the icons that lend a riot of color to that little glass box stand to tell the story as much as they stand to recall it. That is the purpose of our monuments of faith – they tell the story as much as they cause us to recall it. Paul wrote to his Corinthian friends concerning the Lord’s Supper, saying that whenever we eat the bread of remembrance or drink the cup of the same, we are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes again. That is our remembrance – that we might proclaim his death and resurrection with every action and word and thought. Our recollection of Easter, of the Eucharist, of Baptism, all are reminders of this great and epic story of which we are a part. So let us remember today. Let us proclaim with our worship that we serve the crucified and risen God. Let us reach into that story of humanity, that love story between God and his Beloved and hear in our souls the meter of the tale. It is for this reason that we sing, and it is for this reason that we baptize. It is all for the glory of God, that his story might have such an effect on us that we proclaim him, memorialize him, and tell our children our journey with him to this place.
Let us not forget, friends. Let us remember our God and his faithfulness to all generations. Let us build monuments of faith to our God such that our children will inquire into our hope and joy. Let us never forget the things that the Lord has done for us, whether on Easter Sunday or any other.
We Remember.