Friday, January 29, 2010

Grace Abounds

Last Monday evening around 9:00 p.m., after a good and full day of pastoral ministry in Brownwood, I was stopped by an officer of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

I had just finished delivering the greeting and invocation for the 300 or so folks gathered at our church for the annual Brownwood High School Football Banquet, and was making my way home to our ranch in Desdemona.

It had been a good day of numerous meaningful visits, conversations, and prayers with the people in our fellowship. On such days, pastors sometimes slip into a reverie of reflection and thanksgiving about the goodness of our lives together in Christ, the friendship that connects us in Christian community, and the high purpose that is ours in building the Kingdom of God.

Such a trance of gratitude must have made the foot heavier on the accelerator. On Highway 16 north of Comanche, as I approached the Sabanna River, a southbound DPS officer stopped me. He clocked me exceeding the speed limit, flashed his lights, and turned around to ticket me.

My sweet hour of prayer became a frantic plea.

It was pitch dark, and the officer approached my car carefully on the passenger side, asked for my license, insurance, and registration, and sternly inquired as to where I had been and what I had been up to.

Shamelessly pulling the “pastor card,” I stammered something about Brownwood, First Baptist Church, and ministry.

Immediately, his entire demeanor softened. His face brightened. He began talking casually about the fine folks he knew in Brownwood, his own faith, and the spiritual importance of church in his life.

He handed my license back to me and started asking me about mutual friends and acquaintances. Far fewer than the theoretical “six degrees” separate folks in our part of Texas, so we had numerous relationships in common. Finally, he tipped his hat, admonished me to slow down and be careful on the way home. Then a theology: “Reverend, the Lord needs you.”

He extended his hand through the window to me, and introduced himself.

“I’m Officer Grace.”

My roadside conversations with law enforcement officers have not always ended so happily. Nor do I think ministers are entitled to any special consideration when it comes to traffic infractions. My friends have given me endless grief about my absurdly good fortune. One took a little exegetical liberty with Hebrews 4.16: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in our time of speed.”

But, on a dark night, on a lonely stretch of highway, in the face of my own violation, I encountered Grace. And I made it home.

Monday, January 18, 2010


When Martin Luther King, Jr. became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama, just up the road a hundred or so miles from my hometown of Monroeville, he was 25 years old and right out of graduate school. He was blessed to be called to that prestigious, middle class congregation right across the street from the statehouse of the Alabama capitol. He had absolutely no intention of getting involved in racial justice and equality. His only goal was to revitalize and grow the church. In fact, his predecessor in the pastoral office at Dexter Avenue was regarded as something of a hothead, a firebrand, and the good folks at Dexter did not want to repeat that kind of pastoral tenure. So, they called an erudite, groomed, well-educated, scholarly young minister right out of his doctoral program at Boston University.

The next year, as Providence would have it, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. A godly Christian woman named Rosa Parks was arrested because she refused to move to the back of the bus where African-Americans were forced to sit. King was placed on the committee to look into the matter, but still steadfastly refused to take a leadership role.

On a fateful night in December of 1955, the elder pastors of the community came to Dr. King before the worship service that evening and commissioned him to speak to the congregation gathered there. He demurred. He thought he was too young, too inexperienced, too green and untried. He wanted one of the other ministers to take a leadership role. But those wise older pastors gathered around the young man and blessed and anointed him to lead the movement. He took to the sacred desk that night, and delivered a sermon that would mobilize the church of Jesus Christ and transform a nation.

Fast-forward thirteen brief years to a rainy night in Memphis in April of 1968. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had organized a strike of garbage collectors in Memphis to secure a decent wage. Over a thousand folks had come from all over Memphis that night of April 3 to the Mason Temple to hear King preach. The famous preacher was exhausted. His travel schedule was merciless. The pressure on him was enormous. The FBI had him under surveillance. He was constantly away from his wife and family. The nation was in turmoil. And he did not feel like preaching that evening. He felt like he had nothing to say. He was empty, uninspired. He asked his dear friend, Ralph Abernathy, to take his place at the pulpit that night, but Dr. Abernathy gently rebuked his good friend, saying, “Martin, these people didn’t walk through this storm tonight to hear me.” King then made his way to the Temple and delivered his famous “Mountaintop” sermon that is seared into our consciousness. His only request was for the pianist that night to play, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

Jana and I had the privilege to hear this account firsthand in 2008 as we received the highest honor of my pastoral career: induction into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta. The Rev. Billy Kyles, one of the three men last to see Dr. King alive, was the keynote speaker on that occasion. Rev. Kyles said that the entourage gathered at the Lorraine Hotel had been invited to the Kyles’ home for supper around 6:00 that evening; Mrs. Kyles had cooked a fried chicken supper, a favorite meal for a bunch of preachers. They stepped out on the balcony, an awful shot rang out, and Jerusalem had slain another prophet.

Rev. Kyles wondered aloud with us at Morehouse that day: “Why did God place me there with Dr. King on that April 4, 1968. All these years, I’ve asked God why he had me on that balcony that day. There is nothing special about me. I wasn’t a leader in that group. I couldn’t preach powerfully like King and Abernathy. I didn’t have the personal charisma of those men.” He spoke pensively, slowly, reflectively. Then his countenance brightened. He lifted his face to us, his eyes dancing, and he declared boldly to the eruption of the entire hall at Morehouse, “I now know why I was there: Because every crucifixion has to have a witness!”

There is so much work yet to be done. The dream is not yet reality but is still deferred. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2010, let’s remember why God has us here.