Friday, December 26, 2008

There Is A Place For You

The Christmas story holds endless fascination for us for many reasons. One of the characters who captures my imagination in this drama is the unnamed innkeeper.

As I see the movie playing in my head about this holy night, there are many thousands of folks on the roads of Judea that week, each returning to his or her hometown to be registered by the government for the census, as was the decree of the empire. Awful time for a pregnant woman to have to travel, but that was the law.

The trip from Nazareth to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem was over 60 miles, and took a number of days to travel. Mary was heavy with child and bone tired. Joseph had already approached several inns along the road that late afternoon, but they were all already full. No room. It was getting late and Mary couldn’t go much further.

The anonymous innkeeper of Luke’s immortal story sized up the situation instinctively. He too had no vacancy in his establishment, but instead of turning the young couple away, he performed a simple act of kindness: he made a place for them.

He asked the young couple to indulge him a few minutes. He disappeared to the stables where the livestock were boarded for the evening. He found one empty stall that he carefully swept. He placed fresh hay on the dirt floor. He cleared out a feed trough and lined it with the cleanest saddle blankets he could lay hold of. It wasn’t much, but it would be better than a cold hillside.

Then he led the holy family to the barn of Messiah birth.

He could have easily and perhaps justifiably gone about his business. He was stretched to capacity that night with so many guests, distracted by so many needs. But, in the midst of all the stress and demand of that fateful evening, he took the time. He made a place.

The biblical texts of course do not mention an innkeeper. And make only a singular and brief notation of an inn. But, in our imagination we see an individual of exceptional moral compassion and sensitivity, who employed a simple kindness that played a critical role in the arrival of the Christ child.

I see another scene in the movie in my head: Jesus’ mother and father telling him this story over and over again throughout his boyhood moral formation, about a stranger’s generosity that made his birth possible, a surprising provision on a cold night, and a Divine Providence so ingenious that it transformed the unlikeliest of persons into an angel of mercy.

There are angels dispatched for us from on high right now, if we have the cinematic and sanctified imagination to believe it. They are busy acting on our behalf, bringing about our good, transforming our circumstances of scarcity into interventions of abundance. They are clearing out the refuse, preparing what Hemingway piercingly described as that “clean, well-lighted place” we all long for.

Long no longer. It’s Christmas. In Jesus, God has made room.

There is a place for you.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Birth of a Baby

Of all the dangerous and miraculous stories of scripture, the story of the Virgin Birth has captured the imagination of the church in a unique way.

Historic Christianity insists on embracing the Virgin Birth precisely because it synthesizes brilliantly the core imagination of God becoming flesh. It calls us to an order only love can create.

A young Jewish woman is impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and carries a baby inside her out of wedlock, and then is informed by an angel that the baby she is carrying is the Savior of the world. A little illegitimate child as Messiah. A young woman who transcends the narrow confines of her social, economic, and cultural context to give birth to Messiah. It really is the quintessential impossible story. And that’s why the church has always insisted that we embrace it.

But, the story of the virgin birth is also about the equally high purpose of establishing Christ's humanity. The mystery of the incarnation is found in a Messiah who gestates in the belly of young Jewish peasant girl for nine months only to be delivered in a labor of love that changed the whole world. The doctrine of the virgin birth was originally developed to counter the Gnostic notion that Jesus was not fully human, did not develop from something so tiny and tenuous as a fertilized egg, did not grow as a fetus inside a teenage girl, did not cause that young mama to puke every morning for weeks, was not heaved out into the world in a painful and bloody birth like every other human on the planet—and in a smelly barn with livestock at that. You can’t get more physical and sensate than a birth.

Jana and I have big news: we are going to be grandparents in February. A little girl already named Corley Elizabeth will be born to Chad and Mary Beth. I give you fair warning right now—you won’t be able to live with me. Grandparent names have already been claimed. Jana will be ‘Nana’ and I will be ‘Papa Charlie.’ Of course, that little girl can call me anything she wants to! Our precious Mary Beth miscarried twice, so we see this baby as a miracle. But, then again, aren’t they all?

We cannot pay homage to the god of science, and worship at the altar of human rationalism, and celebrate the story of the virgin birth at the same time. We are called to suspend and bracket science, to trust that there is an order beyond what we can analyze.

We have to be embarrassed, because, as the great novelist Flannery O’Connor wryly commented, “Mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving Eating

I learned early on that eating was a major motif of the Christian experience. I’ve been trying to practice that part of the faith ever since.

As a child, every time I was at church I had something good to eat. It started out with cookies and Kool Aid in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, then graduated to donuts and coffee later on, then progressed to world class pot lucks and marvelous summer ice cream suppers and now to the brilliant meals I get to enjoy here at Broadway Baptist. Broadway should win the Nobel Prize for eating.

When I was a young country preacher, the defining characteristic of a successful ministry had nothing to do with preaching or pastoral care, but rather with the way you could pack it in at the dinner table. I learned after I first arrived at the West Point Baptist Church of Matanzas, Kentucky, that if I simply “chowed down” I would likely make it in this new, strange, wonderful work I had been called to. One of my predecessors in that little rural fellowship possessed the fatal flaw of being a finicky eater and those country folks talked about him in serious, pitying tones throughout my entire tenure, as if he had contracted bubonic plague. I determined early on that I would not commit that mistake.

This holy centrality of food would move to a whole new level at revival time. The pastor and guest evangelist would attend a daily moveable feast of three huge meals a day, breakfast, lunch and supper. One alone would have been more than sufficient, but the celebration of meals in folks’ homes was a high spiritual value for country people. So, we rotated through the entire congregation in a week’s time and feasted like kings. Even my hardy indulgence for eating was severely tested. I learned to pace myself through these rituals and to apportion and position food on my plate in such a manner that I could not only gastronomically negotiate it but also satisfy and honor my ever-watchful hosts.

Thanksgiving poses a dilemma for us. On the one hand, we want to enter into the gratitude and warm-heartedness of the season, feeling the peace and goodwill that comes from our abundance of riches and provisions we are fortunate enough, simply by virtue of our national origin, to experience. But, on the other hand, the obscene bounty that I have just described presents an insurmountable contradiction and cruel irony in a world of deprivation and disease, want and hunger. This brilliant eating is the exception to the awful rule in our human family.

923 million people across the world are hungry. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes--one child every five seconds. In the course of the sermon you hear this Sunday, 250 children will die because they don’t have enough to eat.

Most poor people who are hungry deal with chronic undernourishment and vitamin or mineral deficiencies. The result is stunted growth, weakness and heightened susceptibility to illness. Poor nutrition and calorie deficiencies cause nearly one in three people to die prematurely or have disabilities, according to the World Health Organization.

Children are the most at risk of undernourishment. In 2006, about 9.7 million children died before they reached their fifth birthday. Almost all of these deaths occurred in developing countries, 4/5 of them in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the two regions that also suffer from the highest rates of hunger and malnutrition.

Most of these deaths are attributed, not to outright starvation, but to diseases that affect vulnerable children whose bodies have been weakened by hunger. Every year, more than 20 million low-birth weight babies are born in developing countries. The four most common childhood illnesses are diarrhea, acute respiratory illness, malaria and measles. These illnesses are both preventable and treatable.

It seems to me that the most authentic way for us to express our gratitude to God this Thanksgiving season is to give generously to hunger relief efforts so that we can bring some of these children to the table of provision. (Click on for a good, reputable organization called World Vision.)

Even—no especially—in this season of economic downturn, let’s show not only the ingenuity of eating, but also the ingenuity of giving so that others in our global family may enjoy a modicum of what we lavish in daily.

Franklin Roosevelt said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”

Friday, November 07, 2008

New Posting at The High Calling

My latest posting for The High Calling can be found at:

Founded by my friend and fellow church member, Howard Butt, this fine website focuses on the presence of God in all respective vocational callings. I am privileged to write for this organization and encourage your frequent reading of their uplifting material.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"The Arc of God's Justice Is Long, But It Does Touch the Earth."

I am particularly proud to be an American on this historic day.

As one who grew up in the bitter racism of a segregated society in south Alabama, I rejoice today that the final color barrier in American life has been broken by the election of the first African-American president in our nation’s history.

People of good will all over our nation, regardless of political party and electoral allegiance, are touched on this historic occasion.

We have endured a most grueling presidential campaign. The genius of democracy has once again been demonstrated in this simmering stewpot called America. 120 million Americans cast votes in calm and security, with not one single reported incident of reprisal. From sea to shining sea, red and yellow, black and white, rich and poor, old and young celebrated their most treasured civic resource: the right to vote.

As Senator McCain put it in his concession speech, with characteristic directness, “The American people have spoken and they have spoken clearly.” He seemed to sense the significance of the moment with his tone of remarkable graciousness and his dramatic conclusion, “Americans never hide from history. We make history."

Senator Obama struck a similar conciliatory note in his acceptance speech, saying of McCain, “He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader."

As Barack Obama was being chosen by the American family to serve as its president for the next four years, we were holding renewal services in the First Baptist Church of Aliceville, Alabama. We were graced by the presence of numerous African-Americans in the congregation, over a couple of dozen. The pastor later told me that this was the most racially integrated worship celebration he has had the privilege of leading as pastor of this fine fellowship.

I have had a line from Dr. King in my mind all day long: "the arc of God's justice in long, but it does touch the earth."

We have come a long, long way on the journey toward justice in this country. Only a short time ago, that day when Americans would be judged “on the strength of their character rather than the color of their skin” remained only a distant dream.

But, today, that dream has become reality.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

August 27, 2008

Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 90 years old.

Memory is a faculty so effective, that I sometimes feel my father’s presence is physical and immediate. His exuberance for life fuels that memory. Augustine, in his Confessions, has a lengthy reflection on the power of remembrance, asserting that faith would not be possible without memory. Certainly, love and hope would not be possible without it either.

Shortly before his own death, Robert Penn Warren wrote a poem about his grandfather entitled "Reinterment, " pursuing this mysterious and elusive idea that memory keeps something alive. He fixed his concern not on his own impending end, but on the death all over again of his beloved grandfather, whose memory would not be held by any living being once Warren died.

I had a good visit with Mom tonight about Dad, reliving a few episodes and occasions, laughing a little. And sharing in the sadness of his loss.

My brother, Francis, said something in passing about grief several days ago that I’ve thought much about since: We don’t get over a death. We get used to it.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Celebration of Worship at Broadway

Brett and Carol Younger had told me in glowing terms what an enrichment worship is at Broadway Baptist Church, but one has to be in that magnificent House of God and with those beautiful people of God to really get it.

I got it these past two Sabbath days.

The ‘wow’ factor works within you from the moment you step into the sanctuary. One immediately notices the stunning stained-glass “Invitation Window” above the chancel depicting our Lord standing, waiting, with outstretched arms, for us to come and lay our burdens down before the presence of a Loving God. An invitation so wondrously extended simply can’t be refused.

Then, the worshipper hears the ministry of the Cliburn Organ. This remarkable instrument reflects Broadway’s investment in the great musical traditions of the church. Such an investment requires courage in a day when the church is going cheap for popular expressions that purport to be “praise music” but, in my mind, hardly come close.

When the choir stood, I knew they meant business for God. I have been aware of the renowned Broadway choir for years, but there is a vast difference between hearing of and actual hearing. This is choral magic, and it fills that incredible room with a super-charged spiritual energy. Such power does not just happen, but is the result of a practiced offering to God that must be disciplined under deft musical and spiritual direction.

The litanies, readings, reflections and prayers strike a resounding thematic chord that sustain the Word of God throughout the worship so that we might, as the Bible says, “hide it in our hearts.” Such an inner hiding has a better chance of happening if Scripture has more than one shot at us. Broadway lets the Scripture speak, not just once, as if it were incidental, but multiple times. As if it were, say, central. The relative silence of the Bible in corporate worship in our churches is one of the many contradictions glaring at us in our Baptist tradition these days, but this hypocrisy will end if this church has anything to do with it.

After the benediction, you aren't finished worshipping. You reverently remain seated through a postlude that skillfully incorporates elements from the preceeding hour of worship into a musical montage for us to take with us.

Several of my students from the seminary at Mercer University will be in Ft. Worth tomorrow, and will attend our services. I am glad. They will have an expereience that worship is an accurate word for.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Let The Weeds Grow

Today Jana and I worshipped with the Second Baptist Church of Lubbock, the beloved fellowship I served from 1989-2001. I was the guest proclaimer, the third such privilege I have had in recent months.

My text was the gospel lection, Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds recorded in Matthew chapter 13. In this story, the rule of God is said to be like a carefully planted field in which wheat and weeds grow together and are harvested together, with the angels (not us) separating the wheat from the weeds at the end of the age (not now).

It was a timely text for my visit.

This splendid congregation took a chance on me when they called me as a still-unformed 31 year old minister. In short, they had more weed than wheat in their inexperienced pastor. But, they embodied the wisdom of today’s gospel lesson in letting this weed grow along with the wheat. They were longsuffering and gentle with me, allowing me to stumble and blunder my way into pastoral development. As a result of this “tender mercy,” we had a marvelous journey together that we will always celebrate before God.

My oft-repeated refrain to my seminary students is this: it is good churches that make good pastors, and not the other way around.

I think today’s sermon was something of a self-coaching talking point for the way I hope to conduct pastoral ministry from this point forward. I am recognizing more and more that our faith communities are fragile entities, easily beset by fears and insecurities, not given to instinctive capacities for change and adaptablity. I have made my share of leadership mistakes by advancing agenda for congregational change that were simply too pungent for immediate implementation.

After the service, those beautiful people of God at Second B waited patiently in a receiving line to offer their blessing to me, to remind me that long ago they saw wheat instead of weeds in me, and to admonish me, as I reenter the pastoral ministry I so dearly love, to go and engage in this imaginative act of seeing too.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Broadway Baptist Church

The Deacon Body of the Broadway Baptist Church of Ft. Worth has voted unanimously to call me as Interim Pastor. I will begin my ministry with them on July 27.

They have graciously allowed me to fulfill longstanding preaching engagements before I begin.

In an interesting and unusually ironic turn, Broadway's superb pastor, Brett Younger, will succeed me as the preaching teacher at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta. Brett is not only a fine preacher, but is a student of preaching, having earned a doctorate in homiletics. He will be a gift to the seminary in Atlanta.

Brett and many others speak affirmingly and tenderly of Broadway. As is often the case, media accounts of Broadway's present congregational situation are inadequately descriptive. It is very difficult for the press accurately to characterize sensitive and nuanced congregational dynamics that shape a community of humans making their life together. When they try, they invariably fall short.

Broadway's open hospitality and embrace of all of God's children is powerfully symbolized by the stunning stained-glass window facing the worshippers in their magnificent sanctuary. It is called the "invitation window" and depicts Christ standing with arms outstretched to receive anyone who will come to him. This invitational heart has been a core value for Broadway throughout its history, and Jana and I look forward to partnering for a season with them in this mission.

Our job will be to provide pastoral proclamation and presence during the season while Broadway is searching for a permanent minister. I am honored to serve this historic, city-center Texas church, and wish to extend an open invitation to all to pray for us, encourage us, and come alongside us to help build a bridge to a future full with high purpose for God's work in the world.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Martin Luther King Jr. International Board of Preachers

I was inducted today into the Martin Luther King Jr. International Board of Preachers at Dr. King's alma mater, Morehouse College.

We started the day with a lecture by Dr. Lawerence Carter, Dean of the King Chapel at Morehouse, on the influences shaping King's life and ministry. The Chapel halls are adorned with oil portraits of spiritual leaders who have advanced God's Kingdom of justice and love in the world, and Dean Carter (photo) deftly connected all of their stories and contributions together in a wonderful reminder of our "single strand of destiny."

Then, we moved to the chapel for the induction ceremony. The massive pipe organ sounded the keynote of the day with an improvisation on the old hymn, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness." The renowned Morehouse Men's Choir sang an a cappella rendition of "Everytime I Feel the Spirit." The Rev. Billy Kyles (photo), who with the now deceased Rev. Ralph Abernathy, was the last person to see King alive before his untimely death 40 years ago today, preached a powerful message, "I Was There To Be a Witness." Indeed, the sermon was more prophetic challenge for the future than historical remembrance of the past. I wondered not only about my witness, but that of the young students in the congregation, some of them my own from Mercer University. How will we fulfill our Lord's prophecy and charge to be witnesses to the uttermost parts of the world? Read more about Rev. Kyles' sermon at:

It was an extra pleasure to celebrate this occasion with my San Antonio pastor friends, the Rev. Carlton Allen and the Rev. Thuman Walker (photo). We remembered together our collaboration in the citywide Martin Luther King Jr. worship service we were privileged to host at Trinity Baptist several years ago, as well as our other joint projects of racial reconciliation.

This recognition is perhaps the highest honor of my pastoral career. It is a most moving occasion for both Jana and me, and a tribute to the loving and inclusive faith communities I have been privileged to serve throughout my ministry.