As part of my devotional routine for the new year, I committed to read through some of E. Stanley Jones’ sermons. For those who don’t know, E. Stanley Jones (1884 – 1973) was a missionary to India, and an evangelist, apostle, author of twenty-nine books, and was elected Bishop in the Methodist Church, but resigned before he was consecrated. He was also friends with both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi. He was perhaps the most well-known evangelist until the rise of Billy Graham.

estanlyjonesI was reading this morning from the sermon entitled The Center of the Christian Faith is the Cross, and in the sermon, Bro. Stanley deals with the issue of self-surrender, and I was terribly convicted as I read the text. I thought I might share a few of the brilliant nuggets of truth with you (in the hopes that I might not be alone in my conviction). Here is what Bro. Stanley had to say:

“The biggest place of the nullification of grace is at the place of the un-surrendered self. That nullifies the grace of God more than anything I know, because it moves in and says, ‘I am God. I don’t need to take the grace of God; I’m God, and I’m the center’.”

“Many a man who goes into the ministry gives up everything to be a minister except the minister. Many a missionary goes out across the seas and gives up everything to be a missionary–everything except the missionary. The self is still there, watchful of its position, place and power.” (May I say, “Ouch!”?)

“Peter said, ‘Lord, we have left everything to follow thee what do we get?’ The fact that he asked, ‘what do we get?’ showed he hadn’t left everything. He had left his fishing boats, father, mother, brothers and sisters, occupation–everything except the self…Why did he put that last? ‘Yea and his own self also…’ Because that is the last thing we ever give up–houses and lands, and occupation, mother, father, brother, sister, everything goes. But the un-surrendered self is the last thing we ever give up. And we are constantly tripping over the un-surrendered self.”

“It isn’t a question of if you would rather be crucified or not. You will be crucified. The question is if you will be crucified with Christ; you will have purpose in it, meaning in it, goal in it, resurrection in it and future in it! Or, would you rather be crucified like the impenitent thief upon the cross–a crucifixion that has no meaning except deeper and deeper darkness. So we are all hanging on a cross–some with Christ, some on the cross of their own conflicts and their own inherent unhappiness. So don’t think that you will escape the cross. But here is a cross–which when you take it–has life in it.”

“Everyone of us is a mess outside of Jesus, and inside of Jesus, everyone of us is a message. You then have destiny, meaning, goal.”

Brother Stanley, in quoting the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:20, says, “…’the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me’. I am still there and He is living His life in me and through me and we are on a cooperative plan. I supply willingness and He supplies power and we get along wonderfully together. There is no hypocrisy. The self is still there. It is still there but as long as Jesus has that helm and He’s Lord and the self is subservient, it is wonderful.”

“Who loved me? Who loved me? And if He loved me, I can love myself, too. I can love myself for loving Him. I can say, ‘You are a sensible man. You have put your faith in the central place for you have placed it in the Son of God. You are wise in that you chose the highest. You have the only sensible thing that was ever done when you laid yourself at His feet and said, ‘here I am. Take me as I am make me over’.”

“Now just as my fingers are rooted in the palm of my hands, all the sins that we deal with are rooted in the un-surrendered self. Why do we lie? Because the self thinks it will get the advantage. Why are we envious and jealous? Because the self doesn’t want anybody to get ahead of it. Why are we bad tempered? Because of the un-surrendered self. Why are we impure? Because the self things it will get some enjoyment. Why are we gloomy? Because the self is pouting. These things are the fruit; the un-surrendered self is the root. These are the symptoms. The un-surrendered self is the disease. Don’t deal with the symptoms. Go to the root. Go to the un-surrendered self and say, ‘You’ve got me–I’m surrendering now’.”

“I don’t know what you are feeling and you may ask, ‘Is this done (surrendering the self) once and for all or do you have to do it daily?’ It is both. You give yourself once and for all. But there are little ‘alls’ that you have to surrender daily. I believer I gave Him my all, but I find a lot of little alls I have got to let Him have. Whether it is the once and for all–the big all that you have to surrender–or for these little alls, I don’t know but I think you’d like to end this meeting on your knees…Those who want to surrender themselves, would you come and meet me here at this place of prayer and we will have a prayer together and close the meeting on our knees. Will you come?”

I could only say, “Wow!” as I finished reading the sermon. I know I’ll be processing it throughout the day, and I hope I’ll be looking for ways to surrender this un-surrendered self in all those little ways today. I think I’ve got my work cut out for me…but, then there lies part of the problem. I should let the Holy Spirit do the work. It’s not for me to do. That’s part of the surrender I must make. So simply, yet so hard.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Sunday Dinner…

I’ve discovered one more reason I’m not the perfect pastor–Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner was a special time growing up. My grandmother almost always had Sunday dinner, and she almost never missed church to cook it. When church was over, we’d all head over to my grandmother’s house and there would generally be a decent crowd gathered to share the meal.

sunday dinnerThe menu was varied from week to week, with the entree usually being one of three: fried chicken, pot roast or smothered round steak. Occasionally, she would slip in homemade chicken ravioli, and in the wintertime, she would make a pot of homemade vegetable beef soup. One of my personal favorites was homemade chicken spaghetti. We didn’t get chicken spaghetti often, maybe once a year, but I still remember that creamy white cheese sauce that clung so closely to the spaghetti. I remember the first time I ordered chicken and spaghetti at Monjuni’s. It was red! Wrong! But I digress…As good as my grandmother’s chicken spaghetti was, Zelda Johnson’s was better. Dang! My mouth is watering! I’m still digressing…

My grandmother always had an abundance of side dishes that were equally delectable: peas, butter beans, creamed corn, fried okra, fresh tomatoes (seasonally, of course), rice and gravy or mashed potatoes. And, who can forget the corn bread (either baked or fried hot water bread) or the fresh (as in homemade) yeast rolls. We mustn’t forget dessert, either. She always had homemade cakes, pies, brownies or cookies. Nothing was ever out of a can. Everything…and I mean everything, was homemade. It was a veritable feast, and it made the Sunday afternoon nap that much sweeter.

I miss those days. But I’m also blessed to have a wife that comes home after church and prepares Sunday dinner (most Sundays anyway). I suppose my grandmother ruined me for Sunday dinner, which brings me to the reason I’m not the perfect pastor. I dislike (I want to say “hate,” but I’m not sure it’s nice to say “hate”) going “out” to lunch on Sundays. I prefer going home and eating a sandwich to going to restaurants on Sunday. Sundays out at restaurants test my metal as a disciple. First, I’m usually pretty tired. Secondly, I’m hungry. Trust me, preaching three services on Sunday morning is not conducive to grabbing an apple or even a Snickers between services. I arrive at church at 6:30 a.m., on Sunday. It’s a long time between 6:30 and Noon, so though hunger is a relative thing, let’s just say I’m ready to eat. Tired and hungry don’t go well together. I can be cranky (I told you, I’m not the perfect pastor).

Pair tired and hungry with generally large crowds and perhaps even having to wait for a table (and, don’t even get me started on customer service), and it’s a recipe for me being less than personable. I don’t like being less than personable. Vanessa doesn’t like me being less than personable, either. I try to keep Vanessa happy. I fail sometimes. She loves me anyway. I am also reminded of Paul’s admonition, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17), and I think that being less than personable is not a good witness for Christ. I don’t like disappointing Jesus. I do sometimes. He loves me anyway. Seriously, it’s just better for me to avoid restaurants for Sunday dinner.

I’m really glad that my children and grandchildren like coming to my house. I’m really blessed that Vanessa doesn’t mind preparing lunch (most Sundays). I find great comfort in being surrounded with family on Sunday afternoons, sitting around the table, sharing stories, catching up, loving each other. When all the kids were home, many Sunday dinners were spent making fun of the things I said in the sermon, or more likely making fun of the WAY I said some things in the sermon (hey! at least they were listening). It gets loud at times (especially when everyone is here), but it’ll only be loud for a little while. There will come a day when they’ll grow up, have families of their own, and these Sunday dinners will only come sporadically. I don’t long for those days.

Yes, I know. It’s easy to be a disciple, to walk in holiness when we’re surrounded by people that love and encourage us. The greater challenge is to walk in holiness when the enemy is in full frontal assault. But, let’s not discount the wisdom in avoiding those situations in which we know the enemy will confront us. I am also reminded of Paul’s instruction to young Timothy: “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.  Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful” (2 Timothy 2:22-24).

Of course, you do understand that I’m always open to an invitation to someone’s house for Sunday dinner. About the only thing better than coming home after church to Sunday dinner is being invited to experience Sunday dinner at someone else’s house! That way, I don’t have to do the dishes. Yet another reason I’m not the perfect pastor!

Until next time, keep looking up…

On “Religiosity” and other thoughts…

I preached from the prophet Micah for the first time in ministry this past Sunday. The reason I preached from Micah this Sunday as opposed to never having preached from Micah in 23+ years of ministry was a very pragmatic one: the lectionary passage for the Gospels was Matthew 5:1-12 (the Beatitudes), and I just preached an entire series on the Beatitudes back in the fall. As I prepared my preaching calendar, I thought to myself, “self, you’ve never preached from Micah.” So, I decided it was time. It was a hard sermon to write!

In the process of writing the sermon, I used a word that I’m uncertain as to whether I’ve ever used it in a sermon before–religiosity. Someone even made the remark after the sermon that they had a new word to add to their vocabulary, and would try to use it in a sentence this week (wonder how that’s going?). I’ve heard the word before (obviously), but I can’t recall ever using it in a sermon. Webster’s Dictionary defines “religiosity” as “the quality of being religious; religious feeling or sentiment; religiousness.” Makes sense, huh? I guess it really boils down to “how religious are you?”prayer1

Here’s how I used the word in the my sermon:

It’s interesting how the people answered. “Just what do you expect from us anyway? Is there ever anything we can do to please you? Really, we’re good Jews. We go to the Temple. We make our sacrifices. You want us to give more sacrifices? You want us to give our first-born? Is that what you want?” For them, they thought the “right stuff” was the outward demonstration of some religiosity. The problem was the outward religiosity wasn’t translating into a transformed world. It wasn’t translating into right relationships either with God or with the people around them.

I won’t bother to go into all the details of how I came to employ the word (twice in the same paragraph, mind you!). Suffice it to say, the Hebrews were demonstrating a public religion, but it wasn’t translating into a changed culture (sound familiar?). Imagine my surprise when I log on to the web this week and find an article dealing with “religiosity” in the United States. Coincidence? I don’t think so! The author actually employed the word twice in the same paragraph just like I did (am I sensing a new trend here?).

The article was reporting the findings of a Gallup poll for 2013 gauging the overall religiousness of the nation, and actually gave the rankings for the most and least religious states in the nation. Rankings were gauged on a continuum from being “very religious” to “not religious,” with those falling in the middle as “moderately religious.” You can see the entire article by clicking here. A “very religious” person was one who attends worship every week, or almost every week, and considers religion to be very important in their life. 41% of Americans consider themselves “very religious.” I wonder where those 41% are on most Sunday mornings. A full 29% of respondents considered themselves “not religious” (meaning they don’t attend services and don’t consider religion an important part of daily life), with another 29% classifying themselves as “moderately religious” (falling somewhere between the two extremes).

Honestly, I thought the number of non-religious people would be lower in the United States, and the number falling between the extremes higher, but the Gallup organization stated the numbers are virtually unchanged since they started tracking “religiosity” in 2008. So, the long and short of it is that the United States is a somewhat religious nation, and there are some places where religiosity is higher than others. For once, it was good to see Louisiana at the top of a list instead of the bottom, although it might actually be a dubious distinction, especially in light of the fact that we deal with such a high level of poverty and we find ourselves on the lower end of educational achievement. Perhaps the findings of the survey prove the point of my sermon.

The ten most religious states are:

Mississippi: 61 percent are very religious
Utah: 60 percent
Alabama: 57 percent
Louisiana: 56 percent
South Carolina: 54 percent
Tennessee: 54 percent
Georgia: 52 percent
Arkansas: 51 percent
North Carolina: 50 percent
Oklahoma: 49 percent
Kentucky: 49 percent

Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana (along with Utah–it’s the Mormon’s, you know) top the list, yet all three states struggle with poverty and all its companion social ills. I don’t know whether to find that disturbing, alarming, confusing or infuriating. Perhaps it’s some combination of all of them. I’m simply asking the question “Is our religion making any difference in the transformation of our culture?” That was pretty much the point of my sermon on Sunday. I must admit, though, the egg is on my face. This is not an indictment of everyone else. It’s an indictment of myself. I’m a “religious leader,” and if the people are largely unchanged, is it because I’m largely unchanged? If we’ve failed to transform the culture, is it because we’ve failed to submit ourselves to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit? Have I spent my life simply going through the motions, checking off a list of religious “do’s and don’ts” thinking this is what God wants from me? Dare I ask Him the question: What do you want from me, Lord?

I dare not ask Him that question. He might answer, and if He did, He might say, “It doesn’t matter what you do on Sunday, if you are not walking humbly with me Monday through Saturday.”

I might protest and say, “But Lord, I live in a Christian nation. I’ve spent the better part of my life proclaiming the Gospel to the world.” And He might say, “It doesn’t matter if you post the Ten Commandments on all your public buildings if only certain people get justice. It doesn’t matter that you stand up for prayer in schools, if you fail to pray at home and at work. It doesn’t matter if you are adamantly pro-life, if you refuse to provide the resources to keep them fed, healthy and educated once they’re born. It doesn’t matter that you protest loudly when somebody wants to take ‘In God We Trust’ off your currency, if your whole life is consumed with consuming, with acquiring, with buying the things those dollars can buy.”

I dare not ask Him because that’s exactly what He’s likely to say, and perhaps I don’t want to hear it because I know I might only be “moderately religious.” I might actually discover it’s not my “religiosity” that matters. It’s my relationship with Him. He transforms me, and the long and short of it is that I’ve not allowed Him to do His best work in me. Yet, one more indication of how much I need His grace–of why I’m not the perfect pastor.

Huh? Maybe I’ll just put the word “religiosity” out of my vocabulary. It might make life a lot easier for me.

Until next time, keep looking up…