Just Give ’em Jesus…

joe waggonnerIt’s funny what comes to mind every day. I had a great conversation with a parishioner yesterday which prompted thoughts of former parishioners. One former parishioner in particular came to mind, Joe D. Waggonner, as a result of yesterday’s conversation. Mr. Joe was a member at Benton UMC when I pastored there, and I had the privilege to serve with Dr. Donald Webb in conducting his funeral in 2007. Mr. Joe was also a retired congressman from the 4th District of Louisiana. Mr. Joe was a man who knew people, who could name drop political names on a first name basis, yet every time we visited, he wanted to talk about Jesus. As a matter of fact, almost every Sunday he attended worship he would come out by me and say, “Just give ’em Jesus!”

Of course, that memory also prompted another memory, not of a parishioner, but of a mentor. Rev. Jimmie Pyles, who was my District Superintendent when I went to seminary, used to always remind me (and I’m sure many others) “Just tell ’em about Jesus.”

“Just give ’em Jesus!” What a statement! What a reminder of what the world needs. The world needs Jesus. Unfortunately, the more we see the world in need of a Savior, the more we find the world is rejecting the very one God sent to redeem it. It’s hard to “give ’em” Jesus anymore. God, now there’s another issue, but Jesus is just not in vogue these days. We can feel free to talk about God all we want, after all, God is so generic, and that allows everyone to participate in the conversation. Let’s not get too specific and talk too much about Jesus, though. That can be too divisive.

No one would ever say Jesus was unwelcome in our public conversations about deity. Well, that would be exclusive and intolerant, wouldn’t it? But it’s almost an unwritten rule that when I’m invited to pray in public that I shouldn’t pray in Jesus’ name. I might be seen as intolerant and exclusive. After all, we’re all God’s children, and to insist on Jesus as the “only” way to God’s salvation, well, that’s too exclusive and just down-right arrogant. It’s like the world is ready to accept God, but we can keep our Jesus.

How can we not give them Jesus? Isn’t that what we’re called to do in the Gospel? Don’t we believe there is something special about Jesus that sets him apart from all the others who claim religious followers? But then, doesn’t that make us (and Jesus) rather exclusive? Quite the conundrum, huh?

I don’t believe Jesus is exclusive. I am thinking of his words in John 12:32 when he said, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” I think Jesus was saying that the ground is level at the cross. There is something exclusively inclusive in what Jesus had to say that day. Perhaps there is something exclusively inclusive that we have to say to the world as we seek to “give ’em Jesus.”

There is something that makes Jesus exclusive. He’s the only one who claimed to BE God. We believe Jesus is Emmanuel–GOD with us. That is a unique claim, and we have agreed with that claim for over 20 centuries. We agree with that claim every week in worship when we profess our faith in the traditional “Apostle’s Creed.” When we speak of the Trinity, of God who is Father, SON, and Holy Spirit, we’re saying we believe there is something different about Jesus, and I can’t help it, but that’s a little bit exclusive. Asking me to give that up is like asking a Muslim to give up Mohammed, or at least asking a Muslim not to talk about Mohammed.

Perhaps my confusion lies in the fact that we can’t “give” the world anything. Maybe a better word is “offer” them Christ. “Give” them, “offer” them…it’s all semantics. Don’t ask me to not talk about Jesus. Let’s keep Jesus in the God conversation and see what the Holy Spirit might do. I’m not saying anything about the eternal state of anyone’s soul. I haven’t been given that privilege. That’s God’s. I also know that Jesus used a parable where weeds and wheat were growing together, and it wasn’t for the worker’s to pull up the weeds while the crops were growing, so I’ll leave the judgment part to God–to the God who has been revealed, I believe, in Jesus Christ.

I’m not trying to enlist arguments for or against ecumenism or anything like it. I’m just wondering if I can be faithful to the Gospel by removing Jesus from the equation? That’s likely to make me unpopular because it can sound a bit exclusive, and the most terrible thing a person can be these days is exclusive.

What to do, what to do? I’m not sure, but I think I’ll just try to “give ’em Jesus.” 

Until next time, keep looking up…

Per Your Request…

Several people have asked about a few things that have appeared in my last two sermons. For those who don’t attend FUMC, Monroe, I’m currently preaching a series entitled Happy, Happy, Happy: Discovering the Keys to Happiness in the Beattitudes.  I’ve had a couple of lists that peaked some interest, and a couple of illustrations that some have asked about, so I’m posting them here (that and I’m not feeling very creative this morning).f-Green-FreshMethod_Shutterstock-Designus-SeanRoberts

First are the Ten Rules for Happier Living which were a part of Happy and All Heart from Matthew 5:4:

1. Give something away (no strings attached)
2. Do a kindness (and forget it)
3. Spend a few minutes with the aged (their experience is priceless)
4. Look intently into the face of a baby (and marvel)
5. Laugh often (it’s life’s lubricant)
6. Give thanks (a thousand times a day is not enough)
7. Pray (or you will lose the way)
8. Work (with vim and vigor)
9. Plan as though you’ll live forever (because you will)
10.Live as though you’ll die tomorrow (because you will on some tomorrow)

Next, this week’s message, Happy and Gentle, included five practical ways we can practice gentleness in our lives. They are:

  1. Actively seek to make other feel at ease. Be sensitive to other’s opinions and ideas.
  2. Show respect for the personal dignity of the other person. Use persuasion and kindness rather than intimidation and domination.
  3. Avoid blunt speech and abrupt manner.
  4. Don’t be threatened by opposition.
  5. Don’t belittle or degrade or gossip about someone who has fallen—instead, grieve and pray for them.

I also included a video in the New Beginnings worship that a couple people asked about. Here it is:

The horse in the film (whose name is Joey, by the way–and it’s a great film) is a great example of what the Greeks would call a “meek” animal–power under control.

Finally, I made my confession in this week’s message that Perceptions (my weekly radio and TV devotional) has changed my behavior for the better. Here’s the story I shared this week:

“Does meekness describe us? I’m not sure it quite describes me as much as I would like. I can tell you, though, Perceptions sure helps. Seriously, I have to be nice now. It’s amazing how appearing on TV three times a week and on the radio five days a week can change your public behavior. I’m not nearly as likely to blow my horn at people who cut me off in traffic anymore. They might know who I am! I’m much nicer to the slow cashier at Wal-Mart these days, too. Let me tell you. I was in Gulf Shores last week. One evening, Vanessa and I went over to the Ribs and Reds restaurant. I ordered a nice big plate of ribs for dinner. My mouth was watering. It was going to be great. The waiter brought our food over, sat Vanessa’s plate down, and just as he went to sit mine down, the whole slab of ribs slid right off the plate into my lap. My first inclination was to jump up and shout, call the guy a few choice names and storm out. I didn’t, though, and I didn’t even have on one of my shirts with the fumc logo on it. You know what came to my mind? Perceptions. Somebody might know who I am. Somebody might see me. You know what I did? I picked those ribs up off my lap, put them back on the plate, wiped the BBQ sauce off, told the waiter not to worry about it, and ate my ribs. Vanessa couldn’t believe it. Neither could I! Maybe God is doing something in my life.”

Hey? If you were in church on Sunday, this is old news to you. If you weren’t in church on Sunday, you should have been! Seriously, I hope you have as much fun reading as I have writing. I love getting to preach every Sunday!

Until next time, keep looking up…

No One Ever Plans to Fail…

“To fail to plan is to plan to fail.” That’s a nice, catchy cliche, huh? Here’s another: “It’s good to plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark.” Here’s the best one: “Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.”

planning retreatI “planned” for our staff at FUMC, Monroe to go on a planning retreat yesterday. We did. The Holy Spirit, however, decided to throw me a curveball. Oh, we went on the retreat, but the Holy Spirit started pitching very early in the morning.

The first pitch came during my devotional time. As part of my devotional routine each day, I include a reading from Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young. The very first sentence of yesterday’s devotional was “You will not find my peace by engaging in excessive planning: attempting to control what will happen to you in the future.” 

I think I struck out on one pitch. The rest of my morning was off balance. I knew that we should go away from the office, away from the phone calls, away from the distractions, and reflect on ministry. Isn’t that what church staffs are supposed to do? Yet, I heard the Holy Spirit saying very early in the morning that we can rely too much on our own plans, as if our planning is what makes all the difference.

I had “planned” a very specific course of action for the day away. I had an idea of what I wanted to accomplish in our time together. I really wanted to come away from the time with a “plan” for ministry for the year 2014. What would be a theme? What would be some ideas for sermon series? What studies would we plan? That was the “plan.” But, God had other plans. The day became a day of reflection for us. We brainstormed. We talked. We named our strengths. We named our weaknesses. We identified some potential opportunities. We acknowledged some threats. We ate. We laughed. And, at the end of the day, we had one idea.

One idea. All day away, and we came up with one idea. It’s not what I was planning to accomplish, but maybe it was all we needed to accomplish. Maybe that’s the one idea God wanted us to discover yesterday. It’s not helpful that I still have sermon planning and study planning to do, but at least we have one idea (no, I’m not going to tell you what the idea is–our staff knows, we’ll roll it out soon enough) as we move into the new year.

My plans are just that–my plans. I’m quite sure the man in Luke 12 wasn’t planning on dying when he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. That’s what we do way too often. We make our plans and then ask God to bless them. All the while God’s got other plans. I wonder if that’s why too many congregations struggle. Rather than looking for what God is doing and going to join Him in doing it, we decide what we want to do, and then ask God to come go along with us, and we sure would appreciate His blessing along the way. But, whether He chooses to bless it or not, we’re often so obstinate that we continue to do it anyway.

So many congregations plan the same ministries year in and year out. If we just work a little harder this year. If we just do a better job of communicating to the congregation and community. If we could just get people more committed. If we had more workers. If, if, if…and we never realize, it’s not the lack of hard work (the church has plenty of hard workers), it’s not the lack of communication (okay, sometimes it is), it’s not a lack of commitment. Our failure comes in refusing to listen to the Holy Spirit. Our failure comes in taking our plans and laying them out and failing to hear where God is actually leading us. Perhaps we don’t hear because we don’t even ask.

I know this probably sounds a bit self-righteous, but I think I got one right yesterday (even a blind hog finds an acorn sometimes). I woke up with one plan, and God totally changed that plan. For some reason, I think He confirmed it for me this morning. For years, I have read Our Daily Bread  as part of my morning devotional. Would you like to know what the title of this morning’s devotion was? God Had Other Plans! There is a sentence at the end of the devotion that sums up the whole planning and doing process: “Write your plans in pencil and remember that God has the eraser.” That is keenly akin to what Dwight Eisenhower said, ““In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Planning, for those is congregational leadership, is indispensable, even if the plans end up being totally useless. It’s all in God’s hands anyway.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Too Much Time to Think…

Sitting on the beach for six hours a day will give you plenty of time to think, especially if it’s the low season and there aren’t a lot of people on the beach. One of the things I like to do on the beach is people watch, but with less people this time of year, I’ve had more time to think.

beachSitting on the beach is conducive to thinking. The waves rolling, the birds chirping, the breeze blowing. I’ve thought about a lot of things the past two days. Part of that thinking this week has been self-reflective. I didn’t plan this vacation with the intent of being self-reflective. It just kind of happened. I suppose the fact that I’m soon facing the big 5-0 might have something to do with it.

One of the things I’ve reflected on is how blessed I am as I face that big number. I told the congregation in the message on Sunday that it’s easy to give God the credit and the praise when things are going well, so I confess, this is the easy part for me. Someone asked me a few weeks ago how things were going, and my answer was, “I couldn’t write a book or a script to make my life any better.” Well, in the interest of full disclosure, if I were writing a book or script, it would include a chapter in which I received a great financial windfall, so technically, the statement wasn’t the truth, but that’s another story–literally!

I am, however, incredibly blessed, almost to the point that I’m embarrassed to say. Seriously? Who gets to be married to the best friend for almost 32 years. We have a great life together. We have incredible children and grandchildren, and they’re all healthy. Blessed, I tell you! And, when I came to ministry almost 22 years ago, I never, ever envisioned that I would be pastoring such as great congregation as the the one at FUMC, Monroe. I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the past couple of days thanking God for His blessings. I know they are his gifts to us, because I know I don’t deserve any of them. I hope that doesn’t come off as a “humbler than thou” attitude, but I’m just a blessed man.

I’ve also done a fair amount of reflecting on the state of our denomination. I have said in the past that I love the United Methodist Church. I love it enough to want to stay and see it make a difference in the world. There have been a few times I’ve considered leaving for another denomination, but the reality is I don’t know what denomination it would be. Not many people know this, but coming out of seminary, I flirted with another denomination–even went out of state to visit a denominational official and the church they wanted me to pastor–but, in the end, I’m a United Methodist. For better or worse. I’ll be United Methodist until there is not a United Methodist Church. If there comes a day in my life time when there’s not a United Methodist Church, then I’ll consider being something else. In the meantime, I’m going to do all I can to live out my discipleship where I am, and I’m going to do all I can to insure that we people called Methodist continue to seek “holiness of heart and life,” and that the life-changing grace of God made real in Jesus Christ is made available to all who seek it.

Of course, that does make me wonder if I’m being faithful, or if I just don’t like change. I prefer to think it’s the former, but I sometimes know it’s probably the latter. It’s easier not to change. It’s the path of least resistance. I suppose it’s like so many other areas of my life. The Holy Spirit convicts me. I respond, but usually only momentarily, and then things return to “normal.” It’s like if I sit real still, the Holy Spirit will note the futility of his efforts and move on. He never does, he keeps coming back confronting me in the areas he desires to transform in my life. Transformation is hard (and sometimes messy) work. Again, this week, the Holy Spirit has been working on me. He’s spoken pretty clearly into some areas that he’s working on. I’ve heard him loud and clear. There’s more than a little anxiety as I explore some next steps because they will require change. But, isn’t that what transformation is all about?

I’ve pretty much come to this one conclusion–if there had been more people here to watch I wouldn’t have done so much thinking. Oh, well. Maybe next time I’ll come to the beach during high season.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Value of a Lazy Day…

beachI think I honored a Sabbath yesterday. It was Labor Day (but most of you know that), and I didn’t really do a thing. And, I loved it!

Okay, many of you know me as an early riser. It’s 4:30 a.m., as I write these words this morning. That’s my norm. I love the early morning time. It’s generally my most creative time. It’s quiet. I can hear God quite clearly early in the morning. Most times I like what He says to me. Sometimes, I wish He would keep it to Himself…but, I digress. What I’m really trying to say is I slept until after 8 a.m., yesterday. Laid in the bed until 9 a.m. It was a wonderful start to a lazy day.

It was all downhill from there. Here’s a synopsis of my day:

  • 9 – 10 a.m.     Read the newspaper (no, it didn’t take that long–I played a game of my phone for a little while!)
  • 10 a.m.     My beautiful wife makes me homemade biscuits and scrambled eggs for breakfast!
  • 11 a.m.     Gym for a workout
  • 12 p.m.     Went to friend’s house to pick up new golf clubs
  • 12:30 p.m.     Finally took a shower
  • 1:00 p.m.     Read and golf on TV
  • 2:00 p.m.     Nap time
  • 3:00 p.m.     Go shopping for a bag for my new golf clubs
  • 5:00 p.m.     Dinner at my mother-in-law’s house
  • 7:00 p.m.     Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives
  • 8:00 p.m.     Everybody Loves Raymond
  • 9:00 p.m.     I’m in the bed!!!!

Yup. As you can see…I did absolutely nothing yesterday. Which is exactly what I needed to do. So what if I woke up at 3:45 a.m. this morning. I feel incredible. I feel rested. I feel like that’s what a Sabbath is supposed to be.

Maybe I’m just living in anticipation of next week. I’m not just taking a day. I’m taking several. Gonna’ be sitting on the sands of Gulf Shores soaking up the sun with sand between my toes (and probably in my swim suit). Just relaxing and enjoying the view. Nothing scheduled. Nothing planned. Four days of fun and sun (I hope!).

I discovered the value of doing nothing in 2007. We had never been beach people before. Too much trouble packing up four kids, traveling all day to get to the beach. Packing it all up and going back home. Just too much trouble. Then, we took a vacation and actually stayed ON the beach. Sitting on the beach for three days with nothing to do but read and listen to the waves was the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s the only time in my life I felt justified in doing absolutely nothing. It was one of the most refreshing times of my life. I discovered there is great value in doing nothing.

Yesterday was a great reminder for me that doing nothing has value. I used to believe otherwise. I thought I always needed to be doing something productive, and if I wasn’t doing something productive I was being lazy and felt guilty because I wasn’t doing something productive. My time on the beach taught me that doing nothing is actually doing something, and that doing nothing can sometimes be the most productive thing I can do. Doing nothing is refreshing. Doing nothing is renewing. Doing nothing can change a person’s perspective. Doing nothing can prepare a person for the time when there’s plenty to do. As a pastor, there’s always plenty to do. If we always focus on the plenty, we’ll find our strength diminished. We’ll find our focus blurred. We’ll find our priorities misplaced.

That might just be the reason that one of the Ten Commandments is to “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 You have six days each week for your ordinary work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy” (Exodus 20: 8-11).

Jesus was pretty good at observing this one, too. No, he didn’t always observe it on the same day. He healed and did good on the Sabbath Day, but when he’d been busy with ministry, he’d always slip away for a time of prayer and reflection.  Mark gives us a glimpse in his gospel of Jesus’ routine. There, after he had sent his disciples out on a ministry tour, they returned to report all that happened:  “The apostles returned to Jesus from their ministry tour and told him all they had done and taught. 31 Then Jesus said, ‘Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.’ He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. 32 So they left by boat for a quiet place, where they could be alone” (Mark 6:29-32). Okay, so forget for a moment that in this episode five thousand people showed up and Jesus fed them. Look at the bigger point: Jesus wanted to get away. He knew the value of rest, and sought to teach the value to his disciples. We should learn as much.

I don’t have as many lazy days as I’d like, which is probably okay. I’d probably start feeling guilty again if I had more of them. But, I sure did enjoy yesterday, and I’m sure looking forward to next week. So, let me ask you? When was your last Sabbath?

Until next time, keep looking up…