PRONE TO PONDER

PRONE TO PONDER

I am prone to ponder more than most men. Most of my sex—gender is sophistry I prefer not to use—are action-oriented, more likely to take up a task than contemplate its meaning. I’m just bent a little different. It’s probably a good thing, as pondering is a professional necessity for preachers. And it’s one thing I have in common with the mother of Jesus, who “gathered up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”[1]

The word translated “ponder” means meditate. The literal translation is to converse or confer with someone. So, Mary had a conversation with herself about the things that happened to her.

One of the best ways to prepare for Christmas is to do what Mary did, to ponder the imponderables. Let’s do that with her.

First, there was the angelic visit. Abraham received angelic visitors, Jacob wrestled with one, Moses heard the angel speak, Joshua saw an angel, Gideon too and David, and Elijah and Isaiah and Daniel.  Samson’s mother, the wife of Manoah, saw and spoke with an angel. All these people of great fame and impact in Israel had seen an angel and heard one speak. Now, Mary, too, had seen and heard one of the flaming messengers. And his word to her had come true. It wasn’t a dream.

She pondered this. And it was good.

Then there was the angelic description of her son: “You are to give him the name Jesus.” Names mean little to us, just labels we use to identify each other. Names meant much more in ancient times. They designated the character and calling of a person. They were as much prayers and prophecies as they were labels. For you to call your son, Jesus was to make his name a form of praise and testimony. For an angel to give your son the name, Jesus was to make a prophecy about his life.

Calling someone a son of God wasn’t completely unheard of in those days. Caesar was considered divine. Pharaoh was called divine. Antiochus, who conquered Israel between the testaments, adopted the name Epiphanes—”the god who reveals himself.” But the angel called Jesus, the “son of the Most High,” who is lifted far above all gods and men. He is also the heir to David’s throne, the eternal King, Messiah. He comes to be a nursing infant in a peasant girl’s arms.

Mary pondered long, meditating on the meaning of all these things. And they were good.

Where would you least like to spend Christmas? I would not want to spend it in Syria or Sudan or Venezuela or several other war-torn and poverty-stricken places right now.  But multiply the distance between here and there by 1,000 or 1,000,000, and you will not come close to the distance Jesus traveled and the deprivation he endured to become Emmanuel. Meditate on that, and you will find it good.

Finally, the supernatural conception: Every mother knows her baby is special. We often call the whole process of birth a miracle. It is wondrous and beautiful, but it isn’t miraculous. It’s part of our nature, the system God created. In Jesus, God bypassed the system. Mary knew her baby was more than special. Her baby truly was a miracle.

C.S. Lewis wrote beautifully on the incarnation. Read and ponder. “Jesus was conceived when God took off the glove of nature and touched Mary with his naked finger. Thus, Jesus did not evolve up and out of history.”

“In the Christian story, God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He had created. But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift; he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders. Or one may think of a diver first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through the increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay, and then back up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting until suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover.”[2]

That dripping, precious thing is you, and I. Christmas is when we celebrate his coming down to us. Ponder all of that, and you will find it good.

[1] Luke 2:19

[2] The Joyful Christian, Readings from C. S. Lewis pgs. 54-55.

YOU ONLY SAW HER HANDS

YOU ONLY SAW HER HANDS

Alice Marie “Bee” Wolter, October 3, 1930 – November 14, 2019

“I’m a good ole boy and my Momma loves me, but she can’t understand why they keep showin’ my hands and not my face on TV.”

Waylon Jennings was so well known on the Country Music scene that by the time he played Good Ole Boy for the 1979 redneck sitcom, The Dukes of Hazard, everyone who heard the verse knew who was singing it. Waylon’s face never appeared, only his jeans, cowboy shirt and leather vest framing his fingers picking his signature white and black Fender Telecaster. It was an inside joke. But we understood. Waylon was already famous as an “outlaw” country singer. We didn’t need to see his face. We could recognize the sound of his guitar and that coal mine deep baritone anywhere.

About the same time that Waylon and the Duke Brothers were hitting their stride the hands of another musician of a totally different stripe began appearing regularly on television. In Touch, the television ministry of Dr. Charles Stanley began airing nationwide in the early eighties. In those days part of the signature opening sequence for the program was a shot of a pair of skilled hands caressing the ivory white keys of a black grand piano. The viewer never saw the musician’s face and very few people ever knew her name but those of us who were members of First Baptist Church of Atlanta back then didn’t need to. We recognized the hands and knew the signature sound of one of the most talented and dedicated servants to ever play a hymn. We used to sing her that verse of Waylon’s song during rehearsals just to kid her.

Her name is Alice Marie “Bee” Wolter. For twenty-two years she caressed the keys for countless rehearsals, worship services, weddings, funerals, church theatrical productions and traveling choirs as part of the ministry of First Baptist Church of Atlanta. That’s when I met her and more importantly, met her daughter who became my wife. But that doesn’t even make up half of her time in service to the King at the keyboard.

Bee began playing for the church when she was ten years old. She went on to major in organ music at Ohio State University. The week after my wife was born, she was back at the keys with the baby in nursery. She was pianist every summer for about 40 years at Camp Barakel in northern Michigan. And, as of 2016, when she played for her last church in Kennesaw, GA, she had been at her post in some church or ministry, almost every Sunday and many nights in between, for seventy-five years.

The Apostle Paul wrote the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”[1]

Watching her practice, even well up into her 70’s when she probably could have winged and gotten by, one knew that Bee took that to heart. She said she always heard the words in her head when she played, worshiping with the congregation as she gave them the tune and followed without fail the conductor’s tempo. Those of us she accompanied loved to sing when she played because she always made us look good.

So, if you ever get discouraged and wonder if anyone will ever appreciate your work for the Kingdom of God, take a little lesson from my mother-in-law Bee who went home to be with the Lord last week. Very few people on earth will ever know her name. And no one will see her face on TV. But she is enjoying her inheritance in the presence of her King.

[1] Col. 3:23-24

BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

The church I lead ran its first Alpha Course in 2011. We’ve hosted it eight more times since then (twice one year and none in 2018) and 2019 was the best ever! The reason? Not because our team was any better than previous years. We had many of the same people. And not because the food was any better, although it was great. And not because the Alpha Course now features a high-quality video journey with two young hosts in fascinating global locations along with in-person interviews instead of just a guy giving a talk on a stage. We used the new videos in 2017. The difference was that the 2019 Alpha Course at our church had more prayer support than any previous year and it showed in at least five ways.

First, prayer preceded the partnership between the Task Force leader, me, and the Alpha Course Host, Jeff Good. Jeff and I went into this partnership after attending the Alpha Course National Leadership Conference in Arizona last winter. We prayed together in the hotel room and at other times during the conference and came away convinced that God would have us offer the course this year. After that, we agreed to meet weekly to pray for this year’s course.

If you’ve ever spent a long time praying for a specific project, you know what I mean when I say that many direct answers to prayer don’t seem all that spectacular. Things just occur or become obvious or apparent that weren’t apparent before. Things flow. For example, all we knew when we left Arizona was that we were going to offer the course and we needed to pray. We didn’t know who would lead the Task Force and who would be the Host. The Task Force leader oversees setup, meals, and clean up. The Host does PR and everything else. But over time it became apparent that, even though I’d been the host most years and I’m no cook, I should lead the Task Force and Jeff should be the Host.

Direct answers to prayer and evidence of its power appeared in other ways as well.

I realized we probably didn’t have enough budgeted to pay for all the food and the necessary advertising. We also needed a new catering plan that would involve the whole church. But before we even had the catering plan, someone donated $1,000 for the food. Then, a thought “occurred to me,” You dummy, Karen Schopen owns the best restaurant in town and has been in the hospitality business her whole career. Ask her! And voila! We had a new catering plan that included the whole church working together as a team.

But we still needed someone to massage the menus and recruit the cooks and select the right serving setup and make sure I kept everyone up to speed. Enter my excellent wife who, though she’s never cooked for fifty people in her life, knew exactly what to do and how to get it done. Almost the whole church participated. No one felt exhausted and burned out at the end. The meals were great! And the cost? We spent $942.04 on food!

Then there was childcare! Before we could even ask her, Karin Theo offered to do a children’s program concurrent with Alpha. Karin recruited helpers from the whole congregation, and we didn’t have to worry about this part at all. A big relief for me!

Technological problems overcome. We wanted this Alpha Course to feel seamless and high quality to our guests, but we also knew that, technology being what it is, glitches happen. We prayed about that and sure enough, about halfway through the course, the sound card went bad on the computer. One of our guests who is a whiz with technology had it figured out for us before dinner was over.

Finally, and most important, friends who are genuine seekers felt free and safe to ask their hardest questions and hear answers. People in the small groups developed great relationships, shared their deepest struggles, and grew closer to God. One, totally new to the area and our congregation, even joined the church.

With all that in mind I want to ask you to do three things. First, join us each week in prayer for the 2020 Alpha. Second, ask God to show you what part you can play in an Alpha Course near you. Third, begin praying and talking it up with your friends as God provides opportunity. Be ready to invite them when the time comes. I believe the 2020 Alpha Course will be the best ever!

Haven’t heard of The Alpha Course?Click here: The Alpha Course.

THE SECOND LAW OF SPIRITUAL THERMODYNAMICS

THE SECOND LAW  OF SPIRITUAL THERMODYNAMICS

Physics recognizes the second law of thermodynamics. Everything is winding down.  Everything atrophies. Everything decays unless it’s maintained.

Do you have a car? The clutches and seals in the transmission will wear out. Own a home? The siding will rot. The mortar in the bricks will need touching up. The porch will sag. The plumbing will stop up. Have a computer? Its CPU will crash if you don’t maintain it.

What most of us don’t realize is that there is a spiritual version of that law.  It’s called “the law (or doctrine) of total depravity”.  It means that the whole person is affected by something that destroys us, something that causes problems in our relationships and our communities. The mind, the will, the emotions and the body of every human being is infected with a condition known as sin. It doesn’t mean that everyone is as bad as he can possibly be. It means that left to ourselves, without something to keep us in line, we will tend toward selfish, greedy and destructive behavior.

The second law of thermodynamics means we must work at maintaining physical things. The law of total depravity means that we must work at maintaining spiritual things. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt has lost its saltiness it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a lamp and put it on under a basket, but on the lamp stand, and so it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matthew 5:13-16).

How to pull that off? Well, it can be costly. The late Howard Hendricks told this story:

Recently, I was walking the streets in San Mateo, California. I met an attorney I knew from a local evangelical church. I said to him, “What are you doing?”

He said, “I’m looking for a job.”

I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

He said, “No, last week I walked out the front door of that corporation and told them, ‘You can hang it on your beak. I’m no longer going to write contracts that you and I both know are illegal and illegitimate.'”

That man is regarded as one of the top five corporate lawyers in America, and he’s unwilling to sell his value system for a mess of pottage. We need a larger core of lawyers like that.[1]

I can hear you thinking, “Yeah, we need more lawyers like that!” But to be honest we need more mechanics, more doctors, more contractors and more everybody to be like that. That’s what it means to be salt.

Without something to preserve it, the world will suffer ethical decay. Without something to light the way, the world will recede into darkness. God put his church into the world to be that something.  God put you and me here to do something for the world that the world cannot do for itself. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

[1] Citation: Howard Hendricks, “Beyond the Bottom Line,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 101

 

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

If an alien from outer space landed in your driveway and asked, “What are all those buildings in your town with pointy spires and crosses on top? What is that about?” Could you answer accurately?

That’s the question C.S. Lewis—author of the Chronicles of Narnia—and Oxford College Chaplain, Walter Hooper, knocked around one day. “We wondered how many people, (who did not flee) apart from voicing their prejudices about the Church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the aliens would take back to their world much that is worth having.”

Hooper and Lewis were speculating because at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, several autobiographies of former bishops and preachers had flooded the market explaining why they could no longer accept the faith. Lewis believed that much of the ignorance of true Christianity was due to the flood of “liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Nothing much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice. They’ve been disillusioned by a bad Christian or injured by a fraudulent one and rejected the faith out of anger. And a spate of recent statements and books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and former pastors Rob Bell, and Joshua Harris contributes to confusion. “If professionals can’t follow it, how can I?”

But as Hooper writes in his preface to God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis, “…it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” Spiritually hungry skeptics must ask themselves, “Am I rejecting something I fully understand? Or am I using negative examples as an excuse not to investigate it?”

If you are ready to learn what Christianity is about, Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, is a good place to start, as is Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Faith. But if you prefer talking it out among friends you would enjoy the Alpha Course. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. Our church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you come, we promise to feed you well, treat your questions with respect, and above all, not treat you like an alien from outer space.

WHY ALPHA?

WHY ALPHA?

If you long for meaningful community you know that social media only goes so far. People long for real connection. That’s one of the reasons we run the Alpha Course. It brings people from all walks of life together and builds friendships. For eleven weeks we enjoy a meal together, watch a very interesting presentation on some aspect of the faith, break for coffee and desert and then have discussion groups for about 30-40 minutes. Even people who are not Christians enjoy it because of the relationships that are built.

Most Americans have a smattering of knowledge about the faith, but a surprising number don’t really know the basics.  Although there is no test and no college credit, Alpha is educational. Anyone attending Alpha will come away with a much better, more comprehensive understanding of Christianity. Guests can ask any question they like, express any opinion they have, and they will not be ridiculed or scolded.

Another plus about Alpha is that the whole thing is very relaxed, encouraging and fun. I think that’s because the developer, British pastor Nicky Gumble, started out as an atheist and is very sensitive to the feelings of people who have a hard time with faith. The new videos, hosted by Toby Flint and Gemma Hunt, are all available online here, and are phenomenally well done. Alpha does present the basics of the faith and encourages people to believe, but there is no pressure.

Alpha has been around for over thirty years and is a worldwide phenomenon, so it feels like you are part of something big with lots of support and you are. Alpha is a way for the whole congregation to get involved in sharing their faith with their friends without putting them on the spot or asking them to act like salespeople or expecting them to be experts in the field of apologetics.

That’s how Christianity grew in the first place, not through crusades and revival type events, but small groups of friends discussing what they’d learned about Jesus. The Alpha Course builds on itself. People come on the course, find out about Jesus, become believers and get excited about sharing what they’ve learned. Then they naturally want to bring their friends to the next course.

The first group that attended Alpha at our church was very diverse. One African American lady saw a bumper sticker on my car and asked me about it in the grocery store. She came and brought her sister. One man said, “I came to the course thinking I was already a Christian. But I had terrible anxiety, and anger, and depression issues. I couldn’t sleep at night. On the third week of the course I prayed along with the guy on the video and a huge burden lifted off me. I’ve not had those troubles since and I sleep like a baby. I believe I became a real Christian that day.” Another lady attended the course with her husband. Her understanding of Jesus completely changed, and she was baptized. Her husband, who had never attended a church, began to believe that not all Christians were nuts, and started attending regularly.

So, if you’re looking for something deeper and ready to explore life with good friends, try Alpha.

THE BILOXI BLESSING

THE BILOXI BLESSING

The woman was working hard, digging in her front yard, planting azaleas and poinsettias, obviously enjoying herself. She called to my wife and me as her little dog skittered and barked his way toward us, “Don’t worry, he’s very friendly!” And sure enough, he was.

We were taking our daily walk in a neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina, while our then teen-aged daughter took a voice lesson.

“He is friendly!” I said as she dropped another plant in the dirt and filled in around it.

“He’s a survivor too,” she said. “We both swam under the door frame and out of our house or we would have drowned in Katrina.”

“You’re from the Gulf then?”

“Yes. Biloxi. They said my house would never flood so I never bought flood insurance. You can bet I have it for this house!” She filled us in on how they escaped the hurricane and what it took to rebuild and finally be able to sell out and move to Durham.

“Wow, what a coincidence to meet you. A bunch of guys from our church went down in 2006 to help a Biloxi family rebuild.” I said as we headed off down the street in the quiet neighborhood. “We’ll see you later!”

We returned just in time to be called in to consult with the voice teacher, so we didn’t have time to resume our chat with the neighbor. But as we were backing the car out of the driveway, she dusted off her hands and hurried out to the street. I could tell she felt urgent about something, so I rolled down my window.

“You said your church helped people rebuild in Biloxi?”

“Yes.”

“Would you please tell them how grateful all of us are? I have friends whose insurance took four years to settle. Some still have no home. Had it not been for the Churches and all the Christians that came down to help us we never would have made it. Please tell them how much we appreciate it. And tell them this: A lot of people who had not gone to church in a long time started going again when they experienced the love of the Churches. And a lot of people got saved. Would you tell them that for us? And tell them thank you?”

“I sure will! And thanks for sharing your story!”

We had that conversation in 2009. Many hurricanes have come and gone since then, and the people of God are still helping rebuild. So, to everyone who helped, in whatever way, the people devastated by Katrina, Florence, Harvey, Michael, and others, know for certain that God used your efforts. You blessed others with his love, and you are blessed by the survivors in return.