Monday, September 13, 2010

A Dual Charge

Yesterday was a very special day for Jana and me.

In the Sabbath morning we accepted the call as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Desdemona, Texas, our little ranching community 90 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

In the Sabbath evening, we held the first worship celebration of Bread Fellowship, our new community of faith in Fort Worth.

We feel led to lend our pastoral energies to both of these Christian communities.

When my interim pastorate ended with the First Baptist Church of Brownwood in June, the folks in Desdemona invited me to preach. They had experienced numerous challenges in recent years. Attendance has dwindled to 8 worshippers. Discussions centered on closing the doors of this historic Texas church.

We have preached all summer, except for prior Sabbath commitments in other places, and have witnessed the power of the Word of God to convene—and reconvene— a community of faith, hope, and love. We have experienced lively and meaningful Sabbath services, with more and more worshippers week by week, to the happy point that the saints at Desdemona see new life and possibility in their fellowship again.

We are privileged to serve our own neighborhood church where our ranch is located and where Jana’s grandparents invested their lives.

In the Sabbath evening yesterday we had the first worship celebration of our exciting new ministry in Fort Worth called Bread Fellowship. We have been meeting in two small group Bible studies for the past year, and have a core group of 40 or so. Nothing fancy, just sitting in folding chairs arranged in a circle with the Lord's Table in the center.

Our sense of the Spirit's leadership is to focus on the Museum District/Montgomery Plaza area of our city, just west of downtown Fort Worth. We presently meet in the community room of the Monticello Apartments at the corner of North Bailey and White Settlement, but, with yesterday’s gathering, we have already run out of space. We are reaching out mainly to young adults who, for one reason or another, have an ambiguous relationship with the institutional church. (I always smile when I write this line, because we too will likely be institutional enough very soon!) We have no plans to own property or a building.

We are trying to keep this ministry highly inclusive, interactive, informal and intimate, building Christian community around Scripture, prayer, fellowship, and hands-on mission involvement. We have a two word mission statement: Eat. Feed.

I have joined two other fine ministers, Terry Austin and Paul Hood-Patterson, in a pastoral team. There will be others joining this pastoral circle; we are open to God-called ministers who feel led to build a ministry of radical inclusiveness and love.

Let me take a minute to ask you brothers and sisters a big favor:

If you have friends or family members who live in Fort Worth and who do not have a church home, and you feel comfortable providing us their names and contact information, we would be privileged to extend the invitation and friendship of Christ to these friends. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Your prayers are the best gifts. Thank you for lifting us up to the Light of God's love and grace! And, do send us those contacts, as the Spirit leads.

So, Jana and I are now circuit-riding Sabbath preachers, glad and grateful to proclaim our Lord’s great good news in these two fascinating congregational contexts.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Calling As Sign of the Kingdom

Today was a significant day in the little piece of God’s garden I’ve been given to hoe in as three churches I have served staked claim on two of its fine young ministers.

33 year old Ryon Price was called unanimously as the fifth Senior Pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Lubbock and 21 year old Ben Harrison was licensed unanimously to the ministry of the Gospel by the First Baptist Church of Brownwood.

In my spirit, it is no coincidence that the Body of Christ affirmed these two young ministers on the same Sabbath day.

When Lubbock native Ryon Price was a student at Texas Tech University, he began a conversation with me, Hardy Clemons, and others about what it means to be a pastor. That conversation grew into an authentic claim by God on Ryon’s life for pastoral ministry. He has given evidence of that call by his graduation Magna Cum Laude from Duke Divinity School in 2004, and his pastoral ministry in churches in North Carolina and Vermont from 2003 to the present.

When Ben Harrison was boy growing up in Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, he listened to the preaching of his pastors with uncanny understanding and attentiveness. He comes by his call naturally as his father, Steve Harrison, is a gifted lay Bible teacher at Trinity, and his grandmother is an ordained Episcopal priest. As one of his professors at Howard Payne University told me recently about him, “This young man doesn’t just study. He seeks and questions.”

Two years ago, I and others recommended Ryon to Second B as senior minister for that special congregation, explaining to the search team that he possessed an affinity for pastoral proclamation and ministry far beyond his age and experience. Both he and the church conducted themselves in the discernment process with patience and prudence, waiting for the Spirit to disclose a sense of divine will and purpose at the right moment. That moment came today in what numerous friends said was a Spirit-filled service as Ryon preached in view of a call and the congregation joyously confirmed that call.

Ben joined the First Baptist Church of Brownwood shortly after I began my interim ministry here last July. At that time, we began meeting on Sunday afternoons for conversation about the life and work of a pastor. This evening, Ben preached a masterful sermon—only his second preaching event ever and his very first in a Sabbath service-- from John 4 about a marginalized Samaritan woman touched by the love of Christ. Afterwards, the First Baptist Brownwood congregation spoke their response to Ben, a moving celebration of hope and promise in a precocious young servant of Christ. At the benediction, we all encompassed Ben in a circle of love, our hands outstretched and resting on him in affirmation. The venerated pastor Dr. Robert Smith led us in a prayer of dedication, the oldest minister in the congregation voicing our—and God’s-- blessing to the youngest.

In this remarkable season of change for the churches of Christ, and the accompanying stress and upheaval of that change, it is a great goodness to witness the age-old Spirit’s call on Ryon and Ben for service to the Church. Why would two bright young adults, and countless others like them, submit themselves for that peculiar, nerve-wracking service unless a Power beyond themselves so radically compelled them that they could no more resist that call than resist breath itself?

It is no less than a sign of the Kingdom of God for me.

My cup is full tonight.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Baptist Confusion

My friends on the Baylor University Board of Regents are urging patient understanding from our Texas Baptist family concerning the appointment of Kenneth Starr as president of the university.

The call to reason and patience-- two clear Scriptural virtues-- is timely for those of us who are confused and dismayed by this appointment. Because we all, as St. Paul reminds us, “see through a glass darkly,” we must be open to perspectives different from our own, and possibilities other than those we can imagine.

But, given the consistent hijacking of Baptist soul freedom by the forces of conformity over the past 30 years, it seems to me that skepticism is the reasonable response to this decision.

The Baylor Board of Regents has been politicized and polarized. It has hired an individual who symbolizes that political polarization.

Kenneth Starr was born into the Church of Christ. He presently holds membership at a non-denominational church in Virginia—sea to shining sea away from his present home in California. Reports are that he will join a Baptist church upon relocating to Waco.

Texas Baptists are unfailingly polite, but we must sacrifice a dab of decorum to get Judge Starr's views candidly and publically established now on the following questions:

1.) Do you affirm for Baylor professors full freedom to pursue truth according to the leadership of God's Spirit?

2.) Do you endorse the complete equality of women under God to perform God's work in the world?

3.) Why should Texas Baptists continue collecting God's tithes and offerings for Baylor University? (The current annual $3 million from the Baptist General Convention of Texas is a pittance for Baylor, but would be pivotal for any number of other cooperative Texas Baptist missions and ministries.)

4.) Do you believe in separation of church and state?

5.) How will you appropriate your views on Christian citizenship in a way that honors both the republican and democratic (both lower case) visions for our national life, and strenuously upholds the historic Baptist conviction for religious liberty?

President Starr needs to host an all-day meeting ASAP-- as in next week, at the latest-- of all Texas Baptist preachers to hash out these questions and get his views on the record. And, I don't mean one of those perfunctory "get to know the new president" coffees in a church fellowship hall somewhere.

It is widely reported that Kenneth Starr is a decent, kind man; my own experience of sharing a table with him years ago confirms this. Precisely because of this decency, he needs to get before the Texas Baptist family-- his new family-- in honest disclosure of his heart. Christian accountability demands it.

Baylor isn't "Christian" just because it says so. Even the demons give such verbal assent. Baylor is Christian because it does the very things Jesus did, those odd, wonderful, peculiar, distinctive things that build the new rule of God.

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.