Sunday, December 31, 2006

God's Grammar For the New Year

At one time or another you will break up, break down, lose out, go broke, give in, get sick, be sad. Life happens.

(Please click on to read the rest of this article.)
Staying In Christmas

We can’t stand Christmas for very long.

For the brief 36 hours or so starting around dusk on December 24, we slow down long enough to let the Christmas mystery settle on us. If we don’t kneel at the manger, at least we pause before it. Our hearts tell us in our Christmas Eve services to take the sweet glow of candles and communion with us throughout the week and into the new year. We know it would be right and lovely to do so.

But come the morning of the 26th, and we are ready to get busy again. I have observed this back-to-business compulsion in three busy airports this week—Dallas, Atlanta and Frankfurt (where we are visiting our son Cliff who is stationed nearby). Our highly frenetic society simply can’t stay in Christmas very long. The liturgical calendar calls for us to rejoice in Christmas for a spell, but the vaunted Twelve Days of Christmas is something we experience only in song and never in actual celebration.

We start gearing up for Christmas absurdly early. By Halloween, the American retail machine is in full crank, indoctrinating us on the catechism of materialism, the real American religion. That is, we spend money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need, didn’t know existed shortly before the time of purchase, and will soon no longer want. Our cathedrals are empty and our malls are teeming, thus confirming where our real temples are located. It takes a certain kind of altered state to engage in this orgy of acquisition-- this temple sacrifice-- which is why those saccharine carols play over and over again until we are sufficiently stupefied.

The irony is thick: two months preparing for a feast we hardly take a day to enjoy. It is no surprise that many folks are depressed this time of year. How can any normal human aspire to the ridiculous level of holiday cheer and consumption the popular culture calls us to?

American theologian Howard Thurman wrote something years ago entitled, “Work of Christmas Begins.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart…

Then the work of Christmas begins.

Instead of thinking about the new year ahead, let’s get back to Christmas. We should never have left. Let’s focus less on resolutions we make today and more on those Jesus made 2000 years ago.

That's the kind of Christmas we can celebrate for twelve days. And a whole lot longer.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Living Well, Dying Well

As you have sensitively gathered, I have spent this past month in the actual saying goodbye to my daddy, rather than in the reporting and reflecting on it. Thank you all for your plentiful love and prayer for me and my family in this journey. It means more to us than we can possibly convey. That “great cloud” so beautifully described in Scripture has encompassed us in the most comforting witness of love, and we are grateful to you for being a part of it.

Now the right time has come to write again.

My father died as he lived: with dignity and grace. Largely incommunicative during his last three weeks, his presence nevertheless centered us, just as it always had. Unable to tell the stories that have so profoundly ordered our lives, our way of living, we told them for him. Unable to express the sweet affection he always had for his wife and four boys, we tried our best to find that voice in his stead, to replicate that quality of love for him and for each other.

I don’t think I have ever known a man whose impulses of hospitality were so instinctive. He drew you to him, told you convincingly that you belonged, that you had a place. Even the Hospice nurses, whose familiarity with dying and all its hard and holy stages is a daily one, were drawn to Dad. Once, having driven in late from Atlanta, I arrived at the Hospice residence around midnight, and opened the door to my daddy’s room to find a young nurse quarter my daddy’s age bending over him, caressing his forehead. She looked up through moist eyes, and said, “He is such a sweet man.” She was not working, it was not her shift. She simply came by to commune with this sweetness.

Indeed, there was a holiness all around Dad in those last days, an invisible field of sacred energy. You just wanted to be there in that sanctuary with him. Was he praying? Was he remembering? Was he listening to someone else we could not hear? Was he here or somewhere else? We entered this space fearfully and wonderfully. I’ve never known a stillness like this. Dad’s breath was so slight and soundless, and the whole world so reduced and clarified and refined.

About a week or so before Dad died we were together in one of these reveries, when all of a sudden the cloud of unknowing parted. Dad looked up at me with those clear blue eyes that had sparkled with delight for so long and with such abundant pleasure, and said, “Hey boy!” just as he had so many countless times before. The recognition only lasted for a second, then receded back into the neurological fog. But it was more than enough.

A father gives a son one last blessing of belonging before the ship sets sail.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

My Daddy Is Dead

Francis Johnson

Francis Johnson, age 88, went to be with the Lord on Thursday, October 26, 2006, after an extended and courageous struggle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

He was born on August 27, 1918 in the family home of his fathers at Franklin, Alabama and enjoyed this Alabama River community as an avid outdoorsman throughout his entire life. After graduating from the Monroe County High School, he worked on his family farm until July of 1941, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He served throughout the remainder of WWII as a Staff Sergeant in the 24th Combat Mapping Squadron in the China-Burma-India theatre of operations. Upon returning, he attended Auburn University, after which he opened and operated an agricultural supply store in Monroeville, Alabama. He married Carol Brown of Repton, Alabama in 1950. In 1956, he joined Liberty National Life Insurance Company, serving for twenty-five years until his retirement in 1981.

He was a faithful member of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola where he was active in the homebound and hospital visitation ministries.

He is survived by his wife, Carol; his four sons, Langdon of Mobile, Alabama and wife Cheri; Francis of Mobile and wife Rose; Charles of Atlanta, Georgia and wife Jana; and Dennis of Louisville, Kentucky and wife Tracy; eight grandchildren, Chad, Cliff, Will, Peter, Chris Anne, Langdon, Nathan, and Anabeth; brother Foster of Franklin, Alabama and sister Lillie VanRoy of Montgomery, Alabama.

Memorial services will be on Saturday, October 28, 10:00 a.m. in the Pleitz Chapel at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, 500 N. Palafox Street, with the Rev. Dr. Barry Howard officiating. Graveside services will be held later that day at 3:00 p.m. in the River Ridge Cemetery of Franklin, Alabama.

Pallbearers are Glyn Brown, Rusty Corcoran, Dr. Robert Howard, Buck Laird, Ray Lynch, and Dr. Robert K. Wilson.

Memorial gifts may be sent in lieu of flowers to the Joyce Goldenberg Hospice Inpatient Residence, 10075 Hillview Road, Pensacola, Florida, 32514.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

My Daddy Is Dying

When I reported this to my seminary community in chapel worship on Tuesday as we shared our joys and concerns, it was as shocking for me to say as it was for our young students to hear. Death is not a category immediately accessible to creatures in full commencement of their lives.

For the first time in this years-long slow sink, Dad no longer recognizes Mom. Those clear blue eyes have now clouded. He forgets how to swallow. His brain can no longer tell his tongue to lick the trickle of drool descending down his chin. He has been sucked into a watery unwaking. Mom wonders if he will ever emerge.

Where does he go? Is there some alternative world into which he descends? Does he know others there? Is he awake in this place in a way our wakefulness cannot detect? Is he aware? Happy?

The doctors cannot say with exactitude, but my father is nearing death. Medical professionals are understandably reluctant to forecast such mysteries, but, when pressed, one finally ventured only a matter of weeks remaining.

Dad got ready to die a long time ago, long before neurological disease calcified his brain cells. Rarely have I known a person to live with greater readiness. Cavalier or wise, who's to say, but he always had a wry insoucience about what lay ahead.

I carry an early childhood movie in my head of an approaching hurricane, the neighborhood in panic, folks scurrying and scampering to protect themselves against the coming storm. In the midst of this frenzy of boarding up windows and packing up cars, my father reclines on the porch swing, gently rocking, his head laid back in calm as he draws on a cigarette. "Daddy, aren't you scared?" a wide-eyed little boy asks as he climbs up in his father's arms. "No, son. We'll be fine. Just fine," my father says, smiling, as he bends down to pick me up, his Marlboro dangling between his lips.

And, of course, we were. With him, we always were.

The National Weather Service warns us about such people, and with good reason, as recent weather events indicate. I'm not suggesting such stoicism is smart. Only interesting for a small child looking for clues about how to act in the face of fear. (No wonder my oldest brother rode out '04 Hurricane Ivan at his bayside home in Mobile, his wife Cheri having evacuated to stay with her mother in the relative safety of inland Montgomery, but Langdon stubbornly staying, declaring he would rather ride out a hurricane than spend the night with his mother-in-law!)

Now, the darkening cloud is settling in on my daddy. We know it will soon carry him away. No greatness of spirit will be able to prevent it. If he could speak, he would say those familiar words, "It will be fine, son. Just fine."

Come, cloud, carry.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Communion of the Saints

Recently, Jana and I were invited back to the West Point Baptist Church, my seminary pastorate of a quarter-century ago-- how's that for dramatic time measurement?-- to help celebrate their 150th anniversary.

West Point is located in the Kentucky commmunity of Matanzas, which has yet to find its way onto any state map of Kentucky I have ever seen. It is located on the Green River (remember that old John Prine song: "Mama won't you take me back to Mulenberg County/Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?"), 5 miles west of Centertown, pop. 300, which is 9 miles west of Hartford, a town of "2000 happy people and a few soreheads," as the sign at the edge of town reports.

I became pastor the 32nd pastor of West Point in September of 1981, having passed the simplest theological examination in the history of Christendom. "Brother Charles, do you believe this book?" even-then-old Deacon Foster James asked, not accusingly like an inquisitor ready to pounce on apostasy, but gently, while cradling his well-worn, black leather-bound King James Version like a mother holding a child.

My affirmative response, however tentative it was for a beginning seminarian, must have been acceptable. I served the church for three years by weekend commute from the seminary in Louisville 120 miles northeast, traveling every weekend in a beat-up 1967 Volkswagon beetle which local farmer Rex Igleheart declared he wouldn't drive to Hartford, much less back and forth every week from Louisville.

After I completed my Masters of Divinity in 1984, I fully relocated to the rural community, ministering full-time. More than a few of my family, friends and professors thought it was a strange career move to remain at this tiny country church two more years after my seminary training. I took ribbing that among my close circle of fellow students, after graduating from the seminary with their basic divinity degree, Greg went to Harvard to pursue Ph.D. studies, Chuck to Princeton, Michael to Emory... and I to the West Point Baptist Church of Matanzas. My father, ever supportive even when he didn't quite understand the vocational strategy, would ask, "Son, are you sure the Lord knows where you are?"

Those two years proved to be intensely formative for my pastoral identity. I learned what Carlyle Marney called "the ethic of identification" with those wonderful country folk. I hauled hay and stripped tobacco and pulled a calf or two (ask a rancher to explain). Still single, I took most of my meals in the homes of the churchfolk, indeed some of the most masterful eating I have ever done.

Stories abound. We rehearsed them at the 150th. We laughed and cried and remembered. Those passed on, like Foster James, were as present that day as a witness. I swear to you I shook his wrinkled hand at that reunion. I swear it.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Cliff Is Out of Iraq

Last night, Jana and I received the call we have been waiting for: Our son Cliff is out of Iraq and has returned to his base in Germany.

He has been stationed at Camp Victory in Baghdad for the better part of the past year, and is now back at the Hanau Army Airfield outside of Frankfurt. He is in the 320th Engineer Company charged with surveying the land for logistical support and construction. You may read more about his unit's return on the base's website,

As many of you know, Cliff is our second son to serve in Iraq. Our oldest, Chad, parashuted (I'm never sure of the past tense of that word, so let me put it the way the soldiers do: "jumped out of a perfectly good airplane!") at midnight on March 26 in 2003, right after the war started. His unit, the 173rd Airborne Infantry Division, secured the Bashur airfield near Kirkuk, and prevented the basically stable Kurds from retribution against their oppressors.

I will express my feelings about our continued involvement in Iraq in a future blog. For now, we are very proud of Cliff, inexpressibly relieved that he is out of harm's way, deeply grateful not only for the service he has rendered in Iraq, but also for his amazing maturity and growth, and earnest in our unceasing prayers that this war stop soon.

War makes a young man grow up fast. We have twice seen this sad, sobering reality.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Learning and Limitation

"When I finished medical school, I thought I had learned a lot," the young cardiologist told me. "We studied hard, digested a huge body of information, really got after it."

"Upon graduation, we were let loose on the world. Ready to heal. Primed to fight human disease with our massive arsenal of medical knowledge. 'Knowledge is power,' someone has said, and we felt invincible."

"Not long into my practice, I was summoned to the hospital emergency room to attend to a man who had just had a heart attack. I rushed to the hospital feeling strong. I was going to save a life, perform a healing!"

"But, after examining my patient I realized I was not going to do anything of the sort. The man's heart had ruptured. There was absolutely nothing I could do. No sophisticated procedure mastered in a medical school clinic was worth a thin dime now. None of the hundreds of medicines I knew like my own name would work. I was helpless to heal."

"My patient was going to die. And did."

"At that moment, I learned just how much I did not know, a medical lesson not routinely taught in my school. For all my training and knowledge, that man died. His heart literally broke, and all I could do was idly watch that muscular pump quit working, as life and breath left him."

My doctor friend reminded me all over again that one of the major objectives of any enterprise of learning is the realization of how much we do not know. Any authentic course of inquiry will put the student squarely in touch with her finitude.

My Old Testament teacher in seminary would open his classes on the first day by looking over his half-glasses to survey silently the fresh faces before him, finally offering the observation, "Ladies and gentlemen, there is a God... and you are not he."

Limitation is a rude awakening for young physicians fresh out of med school, and for young seminarians ready to cut loose on the church.

As well as for a middle-age pastor whose tenure on the planet should have taught him better.

But it comes barging in to bear that rarest, most blessed virtue: humility.

With humility we are kept from indulging the pangs of omniscience that hungrily beckon us to violate our boundaries.

Without it, we suffer, like Pharisees old and new, that untold ignorance of being too sure.

It surprises even me, who has spent the better portion of his life assuring prayers to and for people in need, to note what impact of love these simple expressions deliver.

We had hardly gotten Dad settled into the Hospice residence before our family's church in Pensacola cranked into action with calls, visits, food-- indeed, fleshed-out prayers. Perhaps we tend to de-value these seemingly small caregiving gestures. We shouldn't. These reminded Mom at a tough moment, when her sons had to return to Mobile and Atlanta for their weekday responsibilities, of that most critical piece of information: you are not alone.

First thing Monday morning, I received a call from my pastor who was already marshalling forces of love on our behalf. Take it from one who has made thousands of such phone calls over the past twenty-five years: it touched me. Hearing the voice of my pastor assure not only his own prayers but also those of the church located me in instant spiritual solidarity.

Being on the receiving end of these electrical charges of love reminds you of why it's so important to keep vigil at your post on the giving end.

Hard business dealing with these end-of-life issues, no two ways around it. But, in the midst of it all there is provision at every turn. The word is from the Latin, pro-video, meaning not only to "see ahead," but also to "see for." There is One who sees ahead of us on the journey, who, according to our Leader, knows what we need before we ask. But, this One also sees for us, that is, on our behalf, in advocacy, paving the way for us.

Example? When Mom finally reached that place last week where she knew she could no longer supervise Dad's care in the home, there was a place available the next day in the Hospice residence, as if it had been waiting for him all along. One can feel the force-field of compassionate care upon entering the place. The miraculous merits of Hospice I will celebrate later.

Dad was a little more lucid yesterday, which is always a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he can commune sweetly with his lifelong companion, but on the other hand, he knows more fully and sadly that he is no longer in his own home.

Like driving through a mountain fog, things will be clear for a brief moment, then back into the haze. He must wonder: can't I linger in this lovely clearing just a little longer?

Hospice residence is designed only for temporary care. We are now searching to find a competent facility for Dad's ongoing care. There was a place available months ago, but Mom simply wasn't ready. She is the chief decision-maker; we follow her lead.

Thoughtful prayers are the best gifts these days as we do this difficult dealing. Thank you for them.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

That Inevitable Day

Many of you know that my father has suffered from Alzheimer's disease for years.

Recently, health care providers have added two words to this diagnosis, "end" and "stage." End-stage Alzheimer's is the clinical way of saying that Dad is dying. He has a degenerative disease for which there is no cure.

The Alzheimer's Association website explains that something called "amyloyd plaque" builds up around the outside of nerve cells in the brain, prohibiting healthy brain function. Researchers know that this material is made up of protein, but they don't know yet how it impedes normal cell activity.

Such a microscopically small thing means that my father has forgotten how to button a shirt, buckle a belt, tie a shoe. The simplest procedures of daily dress and personal hygiene have been daunting for some time now, and would long ago have been impossible to negotiate were it not for Mom's transcendent courage and patience.

But, the inevitable, long-forecast next step has finally come. Dad can no longer be cared for in his own home. We moved him to a temporary Hospice residence this weekend, and will soon place him in a residential care center.

It is hard to see this once robust man now so slumped and crumpled. No measure of stoic bravery can shield his four sons from the awful realization that dementia has robbed them of their bigger-than-life daddy.

Even Mom, who has tenderly noted every single minute graduation of this disease's progress, was not prepared to see her husband in yet this new state of reduction.

Aging ain't for sissies. Browning must have been on drugs the day he wrote that ridiculous thing, "Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be, / The last of life, for which the first was made."

I guess denial is a fine invention as long as it works. It no longer did the trick for what I saw this weekend.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Thanks, Gordon!

I want to thank Gordon Atkinson for the kind words he wrote on his remarkable blog,

If you have not visited that site, leave here and do so right now. Gordon has done something that is always notable for a minister: opened a window and given us a peek at the faith-- and the faith community-- before the window is dressed.

One of the motivations of faith is to act right. This, of course, is a good thing. But, it is a bad thing to cover up when we don't, which is much of the time. It is an unfortunate feature of human nature that people and churches do more of the latter than the former. So, it sure is good to have folks like Gordon who are honest and insightful enough to expose these deceits.

He is prophetic in this way, but gently and wryly so. He uses a mirror instead of a club.

We laugh, we cry, we wince, but we never yawn, which is miracle enough in anybody's preaching!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Church Home Finds Us

We make much in the "Christ-haunted" South, as Flannery O'Conner would say, of "finding a church home."

Yet another peculiar phrase of our provincial religious lingo, "finding a church home" implies that worshippers are not pilgrims but consumers. Which is it: are we on the prowl for the place that suits us best or in search of a community where we might serve?

Maybe our church home, like our biological family, finds us instead.

Shortly after we arrived in Atlanta, we couldn't help but notice the Peachtree (wouldn't you know it?) Baptist Church right down the street from our home. I knew nothing about the fellowship or the pastor or its mission or theology or affiliation.

But, the message on the marquee got our attention: "our doors and our hearts are open to everyone." Sabbath day rolled around and we headed to Peachtree to give it the "truth in advertising" test.

We were greeted warmly at the door, seated hospitably by the usher. Looking around, we saw that all kinds of folks, like us, were testing the message on the marquee too: old and young, black and white and brown, male and female.

When the worship began, the music inspired, the preaching challenged, the pastors-- both female and male-- blessed. The minister extended the invitation, and I felt my wife's elbow in my side. "Get up," she whispered. "We're joining."

"We are?" I asked, shocked, as Jana nudged me out into the aisle.

Within seconds, we were huddled at the altar praying with our new pastor and being introduced to a new fellowship of Christ.

As you might have guessed, we have discovered in the ensuing weeks nothing but delights of meaningful relationship, purposeful mission, and impactful ministry. In the midst of these glad discoveries, we will also soon see that this fellowship too, like all other bodies of Christ, has its struggles and shortcomings.

No surprise there. One need only look as far as the newest members to see that mixed bag. A seminary professor of mine used to suggest that folks dispense with their arbitrary ecclesiastical consumerism-- after all, how do I know what church is best for me?-- and simply attend the one nearest their home.

Try it. You might just be found by a church home.

Monday, September 11, 2006

That Awful Day

This very hour five years ago, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Within the next 100 minutes or so, both towers fell, and our world of relative security and invincibility collapsed with them.

We watched, horrified. We huddled around televisions not only to witness, but also, together, to weep and pray.

What monstrous inhumanity would do such a thing?

Like Pearl Harbor was for my parents and grandparents, we will have that awful moment frozen in our consciousness for the rest of our lives.

Our thoughts turned instinctively to our oldest son, Chad, who had just finished basic training in the Army, and was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Infantry based in Italy. Little did we know that day that a short six months later he would parashoot at midnight into the muddy wheat fields outside Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

Indeed, our thoughts and prayers today, as every day, turn to our middle child, Cliff, who is presently serving in the Army Corps of Engineers in Baghdad. It is night there, as I write this. Duerma con los angelitos, mi estimado hijo.

Fateful in yet another way, September 11, 2001 was my final day as pastor of Second Baptist Church in Lubbock before we relocated to San Antonio to serve Trinity Baptist. As the news stories poured out of New York, I knew I would have to dispense with the prepared speech that I was to deliver to the Lubbock Rotary Club at noon. I spoke extemporaneously instead, trying to give some utterance to the confusion and shock within us.

We also cancelled a community-wide service of thansgiving scheduled for that evening, and held a service of prayer instead. We just needed to be together in solidarity, grief, and hope.
We need to do that today too.

Let us remember the persons who perished in the attack and the resulting rescue effort, their bravery and heroism.

Let us remember the young men and women who have died in Iraq and
Afghanistan-- almost 3000-- their families and loved ones.

Let us remember those wounded in these wars, almost 20,000. I'm thinking now of the young man whose purple heart ceremony I was honored to witness at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He was gravely wounded in an attack, with severe burns over much of his body. When he spoke, though, his mind was on his buddies who didn't make it. "I just wish I could have done something for them." Where does a twentysomething year old kid get that kind of moral courage?

Let us remember what we don't want to remember: the Iraqi citizens who have died, perhaps over 40,000, many children.

Lux aeterna, luceat eis, Domine: Grant them eternal Light, O Lord.

Remembering is a powerful act. In it, someone has said, we get "re-membered:" put back together again from that which has "dis-membered" us.

You and I need that this day.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Word About…God’s Women

Forecasting trends of future Christianity is a dangerous enterprise. Who is ever to say what a Spirit as unpredictable and unmanageable as God’s is going to do next?

According to our Leader, this Wind blows where it wants to, which means that it may move in a different direction just to mess with our minds. Carlyle Marney, a maverick himself, likened that Spirit to a bucking bronco kicking the slats out of every corral we try to construct. Sooner or later a sane person might quit trying.

Therefore, please forgive the following hunch. It is based not on statistical data or empirical analysis or exhaustive research or scholarly inquiry, but, rather, on just looking around. Not an exhaustive field of observation, mind you, but just four sessions of two classes in one school of theology where I am teaching as a visiting instructor of preaching this year:

Many of the preachers in our churches will soon be women.

This will happen whether we like it or not, regardless of theology or biblical exegesis.

Over half of the students at the theology school where I teach are women. Over half of the students in the preaching class I teach are women. What this means, in terms of sheer arithmetic, is that churches will soon either have women in their pulpits or they will have no one.

These women are not overly gender-conscious concerning their call. They are not crusaders or pioneers. They are not out to make a point-- unless, that is, it’s one they are developing in a sermon.

Rather, they are submitting themselves to the call of God on their lives. Simple as that.

It would be understandable for these women to bear a chip-on-the-shoulder disposition, given the poor record of the churches in calling women to the preaching ministries. For years now, the churches have not been willing to call as preachers the very women they have sent to the seminaries to learn how to preach.

But, no rancor or self-pity here. These women just want to preach.

Some have directly criticized-- accurately, I suspect-- our more progressive churches for not having yet called a woman as senior pastor. This criticism will be short-lived. These churches will soon have no recourse but to consider women as candidates for the senior pastoral positions. The math will dictate it. There simply will be too many women for the churches to ignore.

The current situation reminds me of the old fellow who, when asked if he believed in a woman preaching in the pulpit, responded, “Believe it? Hell, I’ve seen it!”

Some disclaimers are in order. The argument I am advancing is in no way meant to devalue the considerable gifts and powers women possess for the preaching ministries of our churches. Nor, by the way, do I wish to overlook the capable, talented men God is equipping for the ministry of proclamation.

It is not my intention here to argue for an “unhindered” (as the book of Acts would put it) pastoral vocation for women, something I strongly embrace. Nor is it my intention to promote women preachers, something I firmly endorse. Nor is it my intention to advance biblical grounds for women’s church leadership, something I passionately espouse.

I do wish to say that the Holy Spirit is clearly and joyously calling women to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, that these women are responding in remarkable numbers and devotion to this call, that it is the unmistakable intention of God to fill our pulpits with women as well men, and that the Spirit has a sneaky and persistent way of seeing that God’s will is done.

These women are not going away. God will continue to claim them for the announcement of the Good News in the churches. They will keep answering that call in ever greater numbers. They will count and pay the cost of that discipleship in rigorous training. And they will keep stoking that “fire in the bones,” staying ready, as Spurgeon put it, to “light a fire in the pulpit” anywhere they are given opportunity to do so.

I give testimony and bear witness to that.

Monday, August 28, 2006

An arranged life

Jana and I returned last evening from the mountains of North Carolina, where we celebrated the wedding of a young couple in, what was commonly referred to by the two families-- not entirely unironically-- as an "arranged" marriage.

Curious term. We thought such things only happened in cultures far away.

Indeed, the story of this bride and groom met is a textbook "set-up." He in New York, she in Charlotte. Her best friend is the daughter of his mom's best friend. They eventually meet under the loving calculations of these mutual friends, and are promised against their protestation that they will hit it off.

They do. They fall in love. They marry. It's an arrangement.

Aren't all our lives arranged by parties and powers outside us who know us better than we know ourselves? We are on the planet not because of any agency of our own, but because two folks conspired to make it so. Whatever the quality of their relationship, they made an arrangement for us to show up.

That we are alive today is attributed not so much to our own powers of self-preservation, but to all kinds of forces converging and collaborating for our good. Did we recruit them? Employ them? Properly pay them? Did we deserve them?

Parents, family, friends, teachers, pastors, mentors, colleagues, healers. They simply meet us, like angels, at just the right intersection, giving us the spiritual and physical provision we need to continue the journey. We don't order them up, like pizza. They appear, as if special arrangement has been made.

Join me today in a weird and wonderful imagination. Be one of those famed flowers of the field Jesus talks about. They don't toil or worry. Sunshine and soil provide them everything they need to be more beautiful than a king's palace. All they have to do is be lovely. That's the arrangement.

I reminded this bride and groom of their arranged marriage.

They reminded me of my arranged life.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

First day of class

It's been a long time since I experienced first-day-of-class jitters, but that familiar human feeling came back in full on Monday evening and yesterday morning as I taught my first two classes here at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.

Writing a syllabus would be the first test of my new pedagogical performance. For all you who need translation (like me), a syllabus is an outline of class assignments and expectations; syllabi is its plural. At the faculty meeting last Thursday, as we shared our syllabi with each other, I was quickly reminded of just how long I had been absent from the peculiar and insular language of academia.

My collegues produced gorgeous, detailed, exhaustive documents that addressed every conceivable question students might have about what was required of them. Mine, by comparison, were pathetic. They looked emaciated next to the fleshy outlines of the other faculty members. But, my fellow teachers endured my amateurism, and patiently provided the necessary feedback for me to produce adequate syllabi.

Sandlot meets big-league.

Actually, the exercise brought to mind Jesus' instruction to his disciples to "let your yeas be yeas and your nays be nays," as the memorable King James puts it. In relationships, particularly new ones, precision in speech is important. Students need a clarity of requirements and expectations-- not fuzzy suggestions.

My old teacher, Wayne Oates, used to stress the essential relational component of "clear covenants, faithfully kept." As I told my students when distributing the syllabus, there is nothing "innerrant" about the document, and it will surely be flexibly interpreted, but the clearer map of our coming journey will make us better co-travellers.

And what impressive co-travellers these students are! They are bright, inquisitive, eager, commmitted. They are already incarnating their theological studies in real Christian service in a variety of ministry positions. Maybe the following observation is simply a function of my aging, but they seem more focused than me and my crew of seminarians 25 years ago. (I suspect my contemporaries will call that a classic case of psychological projection!)

There is a diversity of race and gender and generation among the students which greatly enriches our learning experience. African-Americans are significantly--not nominally-- represented; many are working pastors and preachers already, furthering their theological education for more effective Christian ministry. Younger students in their 20's and 30's learn alongside older students in their 40's and 50's, forming a community of mutual exploration and inquiry. Fully half of the students are women, illustrating that the Pentecostal prophecy of Peter 2000 years ago is now fulfilled before our very eyes (Acts 2.18).

They inspire. After being with them the first day of class, I am stoked.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Now, back to the "more on that later" matters of packing up, moving on, settling in...

Hauling your stuff halfway across the country is a hellish task. Even with the professional movers, who amaze in their capacity to make things fit in just the right, tight crannies, it's nothing but tedious. Jesus was right on, as usual, when he instructed us to go light.

Where does this hording instinct come from? What on earth are we ever going to do with all this stuff? Why this human tendency to collect and store and stockpile?

Storage is an industry, and not an inexpensive one. We're squirrels busily burrowing niches for stuff we will never use.

In a reversal of Thoreau's wisdom at Walden Pond, why let your matters be as one or two when thousands can provide you a weird sense of security?

I was embarrassed to discover an upstairs closet at Trinity full of files from Second B that I had not so much as glanced at over the past five years. Boxes and boxes still sealed shut from the move to San Antonio five years ago.

Why not pitch this useless material? How could I possibly ever use minutes from a monthly church business meeting back in 1989, even if it were in the realm of the remotest possibility that I would have the slightest clue where among those endless reams of paper I could ever put my hands on such a document? Not to mention the infintesimal possibility that anything interesting happened in a church business meeting...

Don't worry, fellow packrats. Those files got loaded up and trucked to Atlanta where they are now safely at rest in another closet I won't enter until it's time to pack 'em up and move 'em to the next place.

It's an addiction. Somebody start a 12 step group.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Offline & Disconnected

I have been largely offline for the past three weeks as Jana and I have packed our things (more on that later), traveled across country (more on that later), started settling into our new home (more on that later), and, all the while, fulfilled preaching assignments on Sundays (yes, more on that later).

It is good now to be re-connected and back online, and I look forward to continuing this weblog conversation. We are curiously provincial and routinized creatures. Familiar persons,patterns and paths of daily activity frame our lives. These routines become second nature for us and we do them without thinking.

They give us categories by which we organize our "daily-ness." It is more than a little disorienting to be removed from this familiarity. One forgets where he placed his keys, set his coffee, put his wallet.

In such a foggy state, weird things happen. The other day in a bookstore I purchased a book that I had already obtained only two weeks before. Authors pray to the bookbuyer gods for readers like me.

The factors of travel and aging only make the situation worse. Youth adapt more readily to unfamiliarity, but as we move into the middle stretches of the journey, we cultivate a greater appreciation for the recognizable spaces of where we lay our head.

This tableau of home and hearth locates us. Maybe this is part of what Jesus was getting at when he instructed his followers to pray thanksgiving to God for the daily provisions of bread... and other regular, blessed habits of eating, sleeping, and ordering a life.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

A pastor without a flock

Before I began my sermon this morning (July 2) with the congregation of the University Baptist Church of Austin, I made a confession: today is the first sabbath in twenty-five years I have not been a pastor of a church, a shepherd of a flock.

Pastoral ministry is absurdly particular, familiar, and local. Simply put, a pastor raises a herd of Christians. The good pastor settles patiently into the rhythms and routines of esta familia. The routinization itself produces spiritual value in a culture seized by what someone has called "the tyranny of the new."

The sameness of the spiritual surroundings in a congregational life is what provides so much of the meaning: same pew, same preacher, same people. Same tear in the carpet at the edge of the chancel. Don't fix that! We order our spirits by that defacement at the altar of the Lord.

These congregational constants constitute a focus for our spiritual energies in worship. They help us meditate. A little boy in my Lubbock congregation would count the number of red, green and blue tiles in the stained-glass window above the chancel. I would venture that's as productive a spiritual exercise as listening to the sermon.

So, the dislocation unsettled me today until I named it out loud at the beginning of my sermon. Then, I was ok. There was an immediate unspoken but clearly conveyed message from that fine congregation that said, "We hear you, Charlie. We know what you mean. We love our home too, the familiarity of it. You are our guest. Share our routines with us today."

Same old, same old can hold spiritual power too.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Virgin Voyage Into the Blogosphere

I'm not sure how to christen properly this virgin voyage into the blogosphere, except to say that I've been noodling for some time now on entering the communal discourse that a blog affords.

I am presently emerging from a complex pastoral experience that defies easy interpretation, and requires the input of my larger community to make sense.

I recently resigned the senior pastoral position at Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, a big-steeple fellowship in the rigors of a congregational culture change at the heart of our 8th largest American city.

Five years ago, I followed a noted minister of 42 years in this pulpit, and faced all the dangers that such a transition entails. It is an axiom of church life that ministers of such lifelong tenures simply do not let go of their pastoral position and platform, and that such leadership transitions on the whole are difficult, at best.

In the technical parlance of our field, the succeeding minister in such a situation is called an "unintentional interim." There was no misunderstanding of this challenge coming in. We waded in, eyes wide open.

That alone, would have been daunting enough. But, there is more.

Trinity was an almost exclusively Anglo congregation in at the heart of a city of more than 700,000 Latinos. For years, she had been in numerical decline, as young, middle class families moved further and further out into the suburban regions of our city. Even a casual observer of the demographic context would have concluded that, in order to maintain a dynamic ministry in San Antonio, Trinity had to move from a monocultural to a multicultural constituency. That is, we had to become a family of faith that looked like God's great family at large in San Antonio: brown and black as well as white, class inclusive as well as affluent, interdenominational as well as Baptist. In short, just as all the major freeways in San Antonio converged at our church's physical location, so all the defining and difficult demographic indicators in American social life came to bear on our church's spiritual self-identity.

In the great cosmic Kitchen of the Lord, God pitched us off in the middle of big diverse metropolitan melting pot.

And then proceeded to stir the stew.

It is this concoction of vulnerability and possibility that I want to publicly digest in this space over the coming months.

I look forward to your input.

About Charles Foster Johnson

Charlie Johnson is a pastor on sabbatical, currently teaching at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia.

His pastorate took him through a number of small churches in Kentucky and Mississippi, several worldwide mission tours, and thirteen years at Second Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas. Most recently, Charlie was pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas from 2001 - 2006.

Hailing from a small city in south Alabama, Johnson was greatly influenced by racial and social justice issues brought to focus by the 60’s civil rights demonstrations. Inspired to take an active role in these issues he planned to become a lawyer, but was called to the ministry in the summer of 1977 in a Washington D.C. ghetto.

While in college that summer, Johnson traveled to the nation’s capital and was walking through a housing project. While interacting with children on the street, he saw inspiring love in the eyes of these young people living in abject poverty.

“In the midst of such hopelessness just a few blocks from our nation’s Capitol, those children’s faces bore the likeness of God!” Johnson remembers. “Their sterling capacities for love inspired me beyond description. I knew beyond doubt that the transmission of sublime love I received from these children would comprise my life’s work.”

Johnson regularly invites rabbis, priests, and ministers from all religions to lead services at the churches he pastors, and accepts invitations to reciprocate. The importance of these initiatives were never more apparent than in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, when he joined ministers of all faiths to publicly urged the community to resist demonizing Muslims.

Commenting on his approach to the ministry, Johnson states that, “Christians have a sacred responsibility to build bridges of understanding with other religious and ethnic groups. The only people Jesus condemned were those who condemned others.”

Johnson is a regular critic of the politics of exclusion being used by the Southern Baptist Convention to stifle freedom of thought in Baptist seminaries, and the denial of women’s roles in church leadership.

Rev. Johnson holds the traditional Baptist positions of separation of church and state, but does not believe that ministers should avoid public service. He readily accepts leadership roles in the community, and served on the San Antonio Mayor’s Commission on Integrity and Trust in City Government, at the request of Mayor Ed Garza.

Charlie is married to Jana Powers McCormick. They have three children. Chad (28) is married to Mary Beth Lancaster of Oklahoma and is managing a ranch in Honey Grove, TX. Cliff (26) is serving in the Army Corps of Engineers in Baghdad, Iraq. Chris Anne (22) is a veterinary assistant in San Antonio.

In addition to a voracious reading appetite, Charlie enjoys hunting, barbecuing, or puttering around the family ranch in his 1989 Ford pickup.