Month: July 2016

The Sadness of a Day…



Some days bring with them a sadness… a deep sorrow that can’t be easily erased, forgotten, or conquered.  Yesterday was one of those days. It brought a profound darkness into which I have yet to discover much light.  Completely unannounced, a pair of investigators from the Mississippi State Public Defender’s office found their way to my office.  “If you’ve got a minute, we need to talk to you about Jack Orson.”  (The name has been changed for obvious reasons.)  It was a name that I hadn’t thought of in the past 4 or 5 years.  In fact, it took a minute for the name to even register in my mind.  Slowly, the memories began to surface and images of a bright, quiet, but contented young man soon splashed across my mind.


I remembered some of his story.  His parents were divorced and remarried.  His father lived here in Nashville with a whole new family and his mother lived back in Mississippi, near the Gulf.  They have been divorced for a long time.  Jack spent much of his adolescent years being “ping-ponged” back and forth between his birth parents.  A couple of summers were spent here in Nashville.  He was quickly accepted into our church’s Youth Group.  He went on youth camps and mission trips and was liked by all.  After High School graduation, he slipped off my radar screen. He moved back to Mississippi where he went to work while living at his mother’s home.


“So what’s going on with Jack?” I inquired.  The two investigators looked at each other for a moment as if wondering how to answer the question.  “We are defending Jack in a court case.  Actually, he has already been tried.  We are trying to talk the judge into a lesser sentence.”  It was then they shared the tragically sad news of Jack’s story.  For some inexplicable reason, one night after work, he got in his car, drove three hours to his grandparents’ home, where he brutally murdered them both.  He was found late that night driving erratically, with blood on his clothes, a knife and pistol riding along in the car with him.  He now spends his days on death row, awaiting execution.  The defenders are trying to commute the sentence down to life without parole.


I understand the heavy-handed sentence.  Jack made terrible choices and will pay for those choices for the rest of his life, whether or not his life will end in months or in decades.  It’s such a waste… 23 years old and never to know freedom again. He will spend a lifetime remembering his heinous acts.  Although I am certainly mindful of his victims, those who are dead and those who now live with what their son has done, I am also mindful of his self-imposed victimization.  I think about the life ahead of him.  How many dark moments will he live?  How many caustic remarks will fill his ears?  How many acts of violence will find his body?  How many tears will flood his eyes?  How many abuses will he know?  It’s just a sadness that I can’t seem to erase, forget, or conquer.  My prayer is that somewhere along the way, he might find a gentle grace and be reminded that there is a loveliness hidden deep inside, put there by a Creator God who will forever refuse to let go of him.

Who Owns The Spirit?


There are many of us who try to live out our lives under the restraint of the moral compass we call Holy Scripture.  It is our guide, our rule, our authority… or so we once said.  When I was young and growing up Baptist, there was a very rock-solid foundation under my feet and those of my generation.  We believed that Bible was, “God’s divinely inspired word which contained truth, without any mixture of error.”  We defended it.  We attempted to live by it.  We longed to handle it accurately.  The popular bumper sticker of the day read, “God said it. I believe it.  That settles it.”


But the winds of change are starting to blow.  If honest, most of us have exchanged the authority of the Word, for the authority of the Spirit.  It has been a slow, but very persistent shift.  Whether or not God has spoken anew to our generation, or we have just grown uncomfortable with a Bible-ethic that doesn’t fit our agenda, one thing is certain… we have begun to exchange written word, for the Spirit’s voice.  We have taught ourselves to view scripture through the lens of the Spirit that dwells within us.  As a royal priesthood, we have adopted the right to read and interpret Scripture as the Spirit nudges us.  And of course, we think we are right.  We believe that our interpretation is “most enlightened” and therefore most correct.  We patiently and condescendingly wait on others to catch up.  So you see the problem… If we declare to live our lives under the guidance of the Spirit, which can become filtered through our own experiences, biases, and opinions, then is it possible that a conflict may result between the authority of Scripture and the perception of Spirit authority?


Some may well argue that Spirit voice should always trump written word.  After all, the Spirit is part of the Godhead, the written word is merely the recorded voice of God.   Who’s to say that it too might reflect the biases of those who wrote it?  Did the Biblical writers get it right?  Is everything written and implied in the text exactly what God chose to communicate?


The other side of the argument follows this logic… Written Word should always trump Spirit voice.  The Written Word has stood the test of time, declaring God’s truth for generation upon generation.  The truth contained within the pages is set in stone and does not bend according to the popular opinions of modern culture.  This logic insists that God’s Word doesn’t change… only our willingness to obey it seems to wax and wane.  A defender of the Word would argue that those whose theology stands counter to the faithful witness of Scripture have surely not heard the voice of the Spirit, but rather the voice of self & society that allow for a bending of the rules because it matches their own opinion.


So how does one read the Bible with open-minded, obedient eyes, while allowing room for the Spirit to speak?  First, we must decide the answer to this question… “Can the Spirit allow us to develop an interpretation that is contrary to the Written word?”  In other words, do the two offer conflicting and competing voices?  Will the Spirit really allow for interpretations that are vastly different from what the Bible states?  To answer with a resounding “yes” means that Scripture’s voice no longer holds value for us… it is supplanted by the Spirit’s directives.  To answer “no” means that we deny the Spirit room for any fresh revelation or insight… moral codes and righteous thought can never change or bend.


So who controls the Spirit?  Or better yet… are we controlled by the Spirit or do we attempt to control the Spirit’s voice in our lives?  For the sake of argument, let’s affirm that God’s Word and God’s Spirit never conflict with each other.  In other words, whatever is written in the Word can only be magnified by the Spirit’s voice.  The Spirit will give clarity and conviction to those who take the Word seriously.  Such a faith position brings sharper focus but heavier responsibility.  Or… for the sake of argument, let’s affirm that God’s Word and God’s Spirit have the room to wrestle with each other and the outcome is not always won by the Word.  Sometimes the Spirit speaks louder.  Such a position can quickly erode Biblical truth in exchange for our interpretation of truth.


If the Spirit’s role is to guide us in all truth (John 16:13), then how can the two… Word and Spirit… ever compete?  Isn’t the same God fully present in both?  So maybe the problem is not found in Scripture, nor in Spirit, but in our unwillingness to lean into what both demand of us.  If the spirit within you teaches you to bend the rules of Biblical authority, then you’d better be careful of that spirit’s voice.  It may not be the voice of God, but rather the serpent’s whisper who again and again says, “You don’t really have to obey God… surely you won’t die.”  And suddenly we will find ourselves living somewhere east of Eden.


Let’s be honest… there are some really important issues out there which are testing the mettle of our generation.  Read the Word with a conviction that it always speaks truth and intention.  And then pray for the clear, crisp voice of the Spirit to give even more insight, so that ambiguity is erased and obedience becomes the watchword of the day.

I Need A Bigger YETI


I know that it’s a very trendy thing to do… that of buying a YETI tumbler to keep one’s drink super-cold for a long time.  You’ve seen the really hip people with one in their hands.  Made of brushed stainless steel they promise the latest and greatest technology in terms of insulated drinkware.  And I have to admit that I really like the one I purchased last week.  When people come into my office, I can tell that they struggle with “tumbler envy.”  I just nonchalantly reach for mine and rattle the ice around a little bit.  My morning Mountain Dew hangs around all day, carefully insulated by high-tech foam and stainless steel walled construction.


As I think about the recent events in our nation… the way that violence and evil continue to raise their heads, I find myself wishing for a little more insulation.  There is a part of me that wishes I could shield myself and those whom I love from all the tragic and terrible winds that tend to blow through our culture.  I wish I could shield this generation from the anger of violence, the injustice of prejudice, that ugliness of racism, and the fear of uncertainty.  Wouldn’t it be great if I could just surround my family with high-tech foam and stainless steel?  Wouldn’t it be great if I could just keep all the evil out?


Maybe that’s the problem.  Maybe I have been cloistering myself away too much already.  Maybe I could make a difference with presence, voice, and activism… if I would but choose “to light a candle instead of just cursing the darkness.”  Maybe it’s not enough to kneel behind a closed and locked door and pray for protection.  Maybe it’s time to be salt and light.  I wonder… until all families are safe and all homes are secured and all races are respected, have I met my moral and Christian obligation to love my neighbor?  I can always shake my head and say, “It sure is a pity about what happened to that guy on the news.”  But then I remember that the guy on the news is someone whom Christ loved and died to redeem.  Christ appreciates the value, dignity, and worth of every person.  How can I do anything less?


So maybe it’s not a bigger YETI that I need, but a bigger heart, a broader vision, and deeper compassion.  Maybe it’s time for intentionality on my part.  Maybe it’s time get more involved.  Maybe the walls that I want to build to keep me safe are the very walls that keep me from being the presence of Christ in the world.  The time for indifference and non-involvement is long gone.  I John 4:20 “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Why Are You in the Palace?

If you have never read it, I encourage you to grab of copy of Timothy Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavor.  In it, Kellor offers a roadmap to the ways in which individuals can make the critical link of tying everyday work to Kingdom work.  In a chapter entitled, “Work Becomes Selfish,” Kellor connects his thoughts to the story of Esther and her circuitous journey to the palace of Persia.  He writes, “God urges you to think about where you are and why you are there, to realize the importance of being in the palace.  It’s possible that only then can He use you to do His work in this world.”[1]  He goes on to say that we are in the palace only by grace.  “You worked with talents you did not earn; they were given to you.  You went through doors of opportunity you did not produce; they just opened for you.  Therefore, everything you have is a matter of grace…”[2]   And then he offers this insight, “Unless you use your clout, your credentials, and your money in service to the people outside the palace, the palace is a prison…”[3]

Connect the dots to your place of ministry.  What does the palace resemble from your frame of reference?  Maybe it’s a prestigious pulpit in a large city, maybe it’s an endowed chair at a University, or maybe it’s a corner office in a successful business.  Now ask yourself how it is that you get to live in that palace?  Is it a result of your superior talents, work ethic, or education?  You might like to think so… but what if Kellor is right?  What if you are in your palace simply by Grace… meaning that God placed you there for a reason?  What if it is not about who you are, but instead, what if it is more about what God wants to do through you?  Surely it is His intention that you would leverage all that you are… your clout, your credentials, and your money, to serve people outside of the palace.

Take a moment to look beyond the safe and comfortable walls that surround you.  Can you gain a perspective on a greater world of need into which you can speak hope and even offer tangible aid?  I think Kellor hits the nail on the head.  Our palaces can quickly become prisons of selfishness, pride, and meaningless endeavors if we only work to better our small corners of influence.  What a waste of grace if we only build our kingdoms for self-promotion and notoriety.  Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that we really don’t deserve the palaces in which we live, but out of sincere gratitude we will strive to find ways to serve a bigger world.  Take off your robe and roll up your sleeves.  It’s time to make a difference.

[1] Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor, (New York, Riverhead Books, 2012), p.117

[2] Keller, p. 120

[3] Keller, p. 119

Where to put the sidewalks…

I am a proud graduate of Samford University.  The time spent on Samford’s campus shaped and molded me in many ways.  My sense of God’s call was brought into clear focus.  I developed life-long friendships.  I learned about religion, English, and science.  And somewhere along the way I learned about life.

Samford University was once known as Howard College… back in the day when my dad attended school there.  Through the years the name changed and so did the location. Once located in East Lake, the school moved in 1957 to its new and present location on Lakeshore Drive.  By design, the architects did an interesting thing during the first year or so.  Rather than plan the location for all the sidewalks, they waited to see where students walked most frequently, and then they added the walkways.  Interesting, right?  Rather than dictate where students had to walk, they waited and watched and in so doing, they learned where students really wanted to go and they planned accordingly.

There is a strong parallel from that story to the relationship between church and community.  In a very noble attempt to provide for the needs of a community, a local church will often map out a ministry plan, envision a need-meeting program, and even raise some funds, all based on the perception of what the church “thinks” are the needs of the community, having never really asked the community their response to such a question of need.  It’s a little backwards.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to first engage the community to see what the real needs are, before building the sidewalks?  In my previous pastorate, we discovered an unknown and unmet need in a local High School that centered around feeding hungry students.  We would have never known about the need without asking.  We thought we knew what a school might need in the way of help from a local church.  We made some incorrect assumptions.  The ministry vision became clear as soon as we asked the right questions.

In my role as the executive director of a new program designed to meet the needs of leaders in faith-based organizations, the notion of where to put the sidewalks is vital.  I can dream and scheme all day long about direction and if I am lucky, I might come up with a teaching module or two that meets a need.  But what if I took the time to see where leaders really wanted to walk and built the sidewalks accordingly?  So I’m going to ask a lot of people a lot of questions.  The last thing that I want to do is spend my efforts on programs that don’t scratch the right itch.

You might want to do the same as you envision your ministry within the context of your local community.  What are the real needs?  Have you asked?  It’s better to see the paths that your neighbors need to walk and build the kind of sidewalks that will help them in their journey.

Anybody hanging on your sleeve?

Just in case you have not been reading the book of Zechariah lately, let me give you a brief reminder of what it’s about.  The main theme of the book is that God is at work in the midst of the exilic period and plans to live again with His people in Jerusalem after He saves them from their enemies and cleanses them of their sins.  There is a lot of redemption and hope poured into its message.  Here’s a verse that intrigues me… “The Lord of Hosts says this: ‘In those days, 10 men from nations of every language will grab the robe of a Jewish man tightly, urging: Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”  Capture that image for a moment.  People from every race, ethnicity, language, and gender will take the sleeve of a righteous Jew because they have heard of the power and character of God.  They want to draw near to God and they believe that by joining themselves to one of His followers, they will likely find their way.

Strip away all the Old Testament talk of exile & prophets and contextualize this verse to modern day life.  The principle remains the same.  Men and woman who are searching for hope, for acceptance, for love, for grace… they will turn to authentic followers of Christ.  True believers walk according to the Spirit within them.  They are people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.  They model Christ so clearly that people would wait in line just to be close to them because they are close to Jesus.

Here’s the problem… a lot of us who claim the Christian faith, lack the Christian character.  Because we are not walking in the footprints of Jesus, no one around us wants to step in cadence with us.  The problem is not with the Gospel we proclaim or the Savior we love… the problem is that our proclamation is devoid of truth and our love is lacking a sense of passion.  Stop and look.  Is anyone clinging to your sleeve because they have heard that God is with you?  How we should wish that our words were true and our actions were noble.  But most of us are just not distinctive from the world around us.  (I’m not saying we should have an arrogant faith that holds us aloof and allows us to look with disdain at those around us.  We are no better than the people we offer our condescension.)  Our distinctiveness should arise from our realization that we are sinners saved by grace… that we have something we didn’t earn… something we have no right to hold.  It is that saving grace that should teach us to look at others, not with judgment, but with a hope that they too will one day claim that same grace.

Maybe selfishness is the greatest sin.  Maybe we really do want to have something that others don’t.  Maybe we really do want to think that we are better than others or somehow more spiritual.  I have to admit that I can’t seem to find anyone chasing me down these days to ask if I know Jesus.  No one is clinging to my sleeve hoping to find Jesus because I seem to resemble Him so closely.  So my prayer is this… “Lord help me to cling to your sleeve so tightly that my heart begins to change, my attitudes begin to soften, and my actions begin to express grace.”  It is only when I truly dedicate my journey to a passionate pursuit of Jesus that I might one day look around and discover that someone else wants to be on the same path.