Archive for the ‘Grace’ category

Being Redemptive Synonyms

April 21, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    April 21, 2019

    “And all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)

I was writing a chapter in the book I’m currently working on and came to a pondering point. I had just used a certain word to describe the mood of one of the characters and I needed to say something similar about him again. To use the same word would have been repetitive at that point, like reading the First Grade Primer with Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot, and Puff. 

“Sally ran. Sally ran up the hill. Sally ran fast. Sally ran and ran!”

Didn’t want that! So I searched for another word that would describe the same situation, a synonym of the already used to communicate the same picture. 

This past week the scenes from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris have elicited a torrent of tears. Parisians who have seen five months of protests (Yellow Vests protesters) were united in their sorrow as flames shoot up from the 850 year old church. They sang together in a candlelight vigil, a mass community of people dealing with loss.

It’s interesting that the protesters have now returned, angry that billions of dollars have been promised by tycoons around the world to rebuild the structure!

Notre Dame is a symbol for the redemptive story of the gospel. It’s holy space that was, ironic as it sounds, in the midst of a restoration project. The preliminary reports are that something connected to the restoration- an electrical short or similar- was the cause of the blaze. Now, despite protests by French citizens, there will be efforts to save and rebuild.

In our own country the past couple of weeks have been stained with the burning of several African-American churches in the south, the threat of an 18 year old girl infatuated with school shootings, especially Columbine, and other assorted acts of evil that let us know the Deceiver is still active and productive.

In the midst of the darkness, however, there are the stories of redemption and the power of the gospel. Redemption comes in many forms, actions, and stories. It takes the form of a Notre Dame security guard rushing to save two priceless relics from the burning building. It  surfaces in the two million dollars of contributions that have been received to rebuild the three Louisiana churches. It appears in the gathering of Columbine families yesterday to remember those who died and those whose impactful stories continue on even in the midst of those deaths. People like Dave Saunders, the teacher who died in the midst of saving some of his students.

A synonym of “redemptive”, in fact, is “saving.” Many of us have been saved from harm, sometimes even from the harm we self-inflict, by someone else who has come alongside us and taken our hand, pulling us from what would be a bad ending. 

Being redemptive synonyms is our opportunity to make a difference, to compensate for the tragedies that surround us, to be new revelations of the Christ story in the present. 

Living out the gospel is a continuous synonym of the redemptive story of Christ. Oh, that there would be more stories of transformative redemption, as opposed to antonyms to the good news!

Middle School Passing Period

April 13, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                   April 13, 2019

                             

It’s like an 8:00 A.M. corridor in an O’Hare International Airport terminal…many people rushing and others in no hurry at all…people on a mission and others who look like they’ve been beaten into submission…people all put together and others who are frantic as they seem to be coming apart.

Instead of an airport terminal, however, it’s a  middle school hallway…between class periods. It’s the four minutes of bedlam where a thousand students are required to navigate slimmed down hallways to get from one classroom to the next. 

I stand with two of the awesome sixth grade teachers, Dan Ferrante and Stephanie Wilcox, against a railing watching the mixture of personalities and temperaments pass us by. 

Some use it to ask one of their teachers a quick question or to plead their case for grace.

“Ms. Wilcox!” whines one girl, as she sticks her lower lip out and speaks in a tone that conveys the world is coming to an end, “I didn’t get all of my math homework done…but it wasn’t my fault! My little brother was sick and I had to do his jobs around the house, PLUS my own!” She punctuates the agony of injustice in being the overworked child of the family with a deep sigh.

Ms. Wilcox is very understanding of the inconvenience and tells her that she will send an email to the mom to express her concern for the illness of the brother and her understanding of the daughter’s inability to complete her math assignment.

Eyes wide open greet the teacher’s response. “Oh, you don’t have to do that! He’s…he’s fine today! Our…ahhh…internet is down anyway!”

Ms. Wilcox knows the talent this student has for avoiding work. She’s heard it all before. As the student walks away she enjoys a giggle of satisfaction over the terror she has created in someone who’s been prone to be the terror!

Several eighth graders walk down the crowded hallway with their noses in their cell phones, oblivious to the mass of bodies around them. 

A couple of sixth grade boys with an obsession for looking cool walk by with AirPods in their ears, as if their social status has been elevated. AirPods are the middle school version of a high school student driving a Maserati GT Convertible to school. They think people notice! They overestimate their peer group. Little Tommy, who has so many papers sticking out of his folder that it resembles the aftermath of a tornado, notices only the obstacles in his path to science class. His coat, which he never takes off, flaps in the hallway breeze and one shoelace is untied and so loose the tongue of the shoe looks thirsty! AirPods mean as much to him as hominy grits!

A small herd of seventh grade girls roam down the way in unison. Their conversation is so fast-paced they sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Never once do they acknowledge the three teachers. We are obstacles in the midst of their verbal jabber.

The boy I sent to the office last week passes by and I sense a scowl. He may have just spit on me…in his mind! His preference is to have the inmates run the asylum. Teachers are like prison guards. Someday he may find out from first-hand knowledge that prison guards are different!

“Mr. Wolfe, who are you subbing for today?” asks a cute sixth grade girl who still isn’t tall enough to ride the carousel merry-go-round by herself. 

“No one! I just decided to come and hang out in the hallway for a while.”

She giggles and goes on to her Language Arts classroom, not sure if I’m serious or trying to fool her. 

Another sixth grade girl. “Mr. Ferrante, do you want to read my speech?”

“Sure, but maybe at the beginning of our lunch period…unless I can read it in 15 seconds!”

There are the few who seek to take five minutes to get to their destination. They are in no hurry…with the exception of the 2:45 bell at the end of the school day. Jet propulsion empowers their feet at that point!

The crowds lessen and the teachers turn towards their classrooms. For the next 57 minutes the terminals will be quiet until the next class period’s flights begin boarding. 

What I Like About Church

March 18, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         March 18, 2019

                                 

I admit that it’s ingrained in me. Sunday mornings have always meant one word: Church! And since our family attended Central Baptist Church in Winchester, Kentucky, it meant Sunday morning and Sunday evening. 

I was always a bit jealous of the kids at the Methodist church across the street from Central Baptist. They didn’t have Sunday evening services and, therefore, got to stay home and watch “Walt Disney” on TV. For my two siblings and me, our exposure to Walt Disney had to happen at Leed’s Theatre in downtown Winchester. That’s where we discovered “Old Yeller” and “Big Red”, not on TV!

But I liked church! It was like a warm blanket on a blizzard night. It felt good and right. 

And now 55 years since Central Baptist, and a career as an American Baptist pastor, I still feel right when I sit in a pew, or a sanctuary chair. It makes me wonder though…why? It’s got to be more than just the mark made by a family tradition. Why do I think about being a part of a worship service when Sunday morning rolls around?

I could get all spiritual on you and say right away that it’s because of the grace of God for such a sinner as me, and the forgiveness of Christ exacted by the shedding of his blood…and that’s true! The foundation for being a life-long church participant IS rooted in the gospel of Christ, but that’s not what gets me out of bed on Sunday morning.

It’s not the lure of donuts and Danish’s either, or weak coffee brewed by someone who’s taste was destroyed by drinking watered-down Maxwell House.

I like church because of the intimacy and the memories of intimacy. Not the youth group hay rides we used to go on…not that kind of intimacy, although the memories of them still bring a smile to my face!

The intimacy I’m thinking of was being able to lean up against my mom or dad’s arm and know that neither or them was going anywhere for the next hour or so. There was a closeness to family in those moments. 

A few weeks ago a picture popped up on my Facebook page from seven years ago. It was from Christmas Day, 2011. I stood in the aisle of the sanctuary with a dear man named Rex Davis. I had my arm around his shoulders and he had his arm around my waist. Rex was around 90 at the time. I like church because of moments like that, when the bond of Christ draws us together in an embrace of deep love and connected humanity. 

I like church because of the moments of revelation. Once again, I need to clarify about that term, because it’s been associated with suspect snake oil salesmen. For me, the moments of revelation come as I sit in silence and ponder, or as a scripture verse is read for the umpteenth time, or as I gaze at a stained glass window. Things get revealed to me about myself, or about the One I’m encountering. I live in a world that is so noisy I’m blasted with false revelations every day. I’m told my life needs certain things- products and services and such. Snake oil now comes in a variety of cultural flavors. In church, true revelation is hinted at if I desire to follow its path.

I like the hope of church and the hope experienced in church. Weary souls stumble through the doors and then a short while later leave rested and reassured. The hurting share their wounds and are carried back to healing. The lonely and broken-hearted are able to be embraced and held in place. A world of trouble is put into perspective by the message of the God who draws near.

I don’t go to church to be impressed by the perfection of the pastor, or the performance of the participants. There’s something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth- like sweet cream gone bad- when church tries to outdo the other places of worship in the same zip code, something fake and foreign to my senses.

And so I go each Sunday, ready to receive and willing to give. I’ve long since stopped using my mom and dad’s arms as a pillow for my head, but I still have others who I know I can lean on, if and when I need them!

The Scarcity of Friends

March 15, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            March 15, 2019

                                     

“A true friend is one who overlooks your failures and tolerates your success!”  

                                                                    -Doug Larson

My dad passed away 13 months ago today. He was a great father, a person of great character, and a man of faith. He left this life four months short of his 90th birthday. Long life, lots of good memories, but he outlived his friends!

There’s something good about being “the last one breathing”, and yet, there’s significant downside as well. Not that 89 year olds should be carrying a casket, but Dad had none of his long-time friends still around. Bill Ball, Ralph Carrico, Jim Rollyson, Walt Doyle, Harold Brown…they had all moved on to Glory! Thankfully he had plenty of grandchildren, two sons, and a son-in-law who were able to hoist the casket from the hearse to the grave site. 

When Bill Ball passed away in the summer of 2017, it was also the finale of friendship for Pops. In the midst of the new reality- the absence of his friends- there was an unspoken sadness, a silent weeping in his spirit. It caused me to pause and reflect on what made these five men so valued to my dad. What causes friendship to grow deep roots?

And gloomy as it may seem, it caused me to consider who my pallbearers would be? Who are the people who will pick me up and set me down for the last time? I have plenty of people who are my family and relatives who would do it…I think!…but what about the others who will literally walk beside me for the final steps?

It’s a question that is revealing and, for some, disturbing. As a friend of mine once said, “I have many acquaintances, but few friends!” Those words said many years ago resonate with me more and more. I have, according to Facebook, a multitude of friends, but, in reality, almost all of them are simply acquaintances. A few of them could be said to be friends.

What differentiates between those two categories, friends and acquaintances? For me it’s the following:

1) A friend is someone who listens and is also willing for me to be a listener. It’s a two way street. Someone who only listens is simply a counselor. Someone who only talks is…annoying! There’s been times when one of my friends just needed me to have ears, and other times when he needed to be still and hear.

2) A friend is someone who holds the rope as you climb the rocks and pulls you up when you’ve descended to the depths. In other words, he applauds your accomplishments and helps you recover from the defeats.

3) A friend is someone you can call on at anytime and anywhere, never doubting in their willingness to rescue.

4) A friend is someone you can laugh with uncontrollably, as well as vehemently disagree with. Your friendship is not based on the two of you being like one another, but rather on a relationship that respects your differences.

5) A friend is someone who advises you to slow down, think and pray about it, before you do something stupid; and asks you “what in the world you’re waiting for” when the solution is as clear as your hand in front of your face!

6) A friend knows your weaknesses and temptations and sometimes has to slap you up the side of the head to wake you up to where you’re heading!

After going down my list the number of people who qualify to carry me to my final resting place gets whittled down, but I know that they are also the people who will grasp the handles with firmness and resolve. 

The Rigid New Worship

March 12, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         March 12, 2019

                                  

A few months ago my wife and I attended a mega-church that had grown incredibly fast…numbers-wise! It wasn’t my cup of tea. The pastor’s message was okay, although it had a not-so-subtle hint of “Look at us now!” to it! But the striking…er, deafening aspect was the performance upfront that was referred to as “worship music.” I usually enjoy singing, but since I couldn’t hear my own voice I closed my mouth. Obviously, where I was in my parameters of worship was different than the masses.

Back in the 1980’s and 90’s there were battles in churches across the country that were known as “the worship wars.” Some churches had broken away from hymns and began singing praise music. Others put one foot in the hymnbook and one foot on the praise choruses sheet music. Generally speaking, the elder generation saw praise music as a step away from Jesus and a step closer to fallenness. The younger generation wanted the parking brake taken off of the organ! Few were happy. The Deceiver used music about Jesus to bring division into the church.

I was an “in-betweener”, singing “The Old Rugged Cross” in morning worship and then “Pass It On” at youth group that night. We never sang “Pass It On” in the church service, but, of course, we never sang “The Old Rugged Cross” in youth group.

And then when I was a student at Judson College things started changing. Keith Green came to campus and did a concert and I was “wowed” by the depth of the lyrics and the sound of the music. And then there was a lady known as “Honeytree”, and Rich Mullins, and a three siblings group known as The Second  Chapter of Acts. I still remember when our hymns-only church sang “Easter Song” by Second Chapter…but it was deemed okay since it was about Jesus, the resurrection, and it was Easter Sunday!

I remember the consternation about having someone play the drums in church, let alone the bass and electric guitars. Gradually, there was a softening of the hearts, or, perhaps, a turning down of the hearing aids, and we trudged to a worship wars truce. A suspicious spirit, however, emerged in a number of churches. I remember a man in my church who would leave the sanctuary every time a praise song was sung. If an organ was good enough for Jesus it was good enough for him. Anyone who liked those new praise songs was suspect in his mind, and, on the other hand, other people were suspicious of him!

But now we’ve come to a new day where the worship wars have ended…sorta’! Congregations were seeing their young people leaving the church and using adjectives such as “irrelevant” and “boring” to describe it. So…they surrendered to contemporary Christian music!

Once in a while they still sing a hymn…a revised, updated, hymn that is! One that has the same words, but a better beat in case anyone wants to dance in the aisles!

It’s amazing the flip that has happened! Just as there was a rigid loyalty in the older generation to singing the old familiar hymns, it seems there is now a rigidity in the new worship about not just singing the new music, but to making worship into a performance. The voice of the lead singer needs to be so amazing that the congregation thinks they are in the “American Idol” audience. The lyrics, more often than not, have to be so simple that the audience doesn’t even need to look at the mega-sized screen up front. The music so moving or soothing that it causes the audience to either jump or sway. 

Just as our old traditional congregations were steadfast about having the hymnal in hand the new worship is uncompromising about having the audience’s hands free.

I don’t believe we are headed back to the worship wars again, and that’s a good thing! But we do have a new crisis that we’re walking through. I’ll call it “The Worship Wows!”

Baptist Pastor (Retired) Confessional

March 9, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        March 9, 2019

                       

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, that day where the sign of the cross marked up the forehead of a number of folk. It also marked the beginning of the Season of Lent, a journey that takes the Christ-follower to the cross of Christ. 

Many a Christ-follower give up something for Lent. My friend, Ron McKinney, gave up meat for Lent one time and overloaded his bean consumption. A wise person stayed upwind from him until Easter Sunday. I was confined in a small space with him one afternoon and my nasal hairs were pulverized!

Confession is something that happens often during Lent. People seem to be more willing to have “Come to Jesus” moments where they admit their shortcomings and temptations, kind of like Peter’s sobbing after he denied Jesus three times!

Since I retired from pastoring three years ago the focus of my confessions has changed somewhat. I no longer have to repent of thoughts of certain “thorny people” from my church being duct-taped to one of the sanctuary walls, or wanting words of correction to come to my mind to convince a couple of folk that “bitchiness” is not a spiritual gift.

My confessions are usually now uncovered from any churchiness, and more connected to typical daily life patterns.

For example, I love John Sanford novels, especially one of his main characters, Virgil Flowers. They are laced with Minnesota law enforcement humor…and a few “f-bombs!” One day this week I was reading my daily passage in the “One Year Bible” about Peter denying Jesus and then picked up the latest Sanford novel where a man vehemently is denying he killed someone…complete with profanity! I felt the Baptist guilt coming my way! I confess, but it’s due back at the library so I’ve got to finish it.

I confess that I’ve avoided the supermarket recently until after 8 P.M. so I can miss the Girl Scouts selling their cookies. The sale ends tomorrow so, beginning Monday, I can shop earlier. 

I confess that I love fried foods. After all, I was born in Kentucky, where the common cuisine understanding is “If you can eat it, we can fry it!” I’m specifically drawn towards fried fish, about the worst thing, health wise, you can eat, but ummm-ummm-ummm!

I confess that I’m prone to using the same facial tissue to blow my nose more than once…okay, more than twice! It’s disgusting, but I justify it by saying I’m being “cost conscious!”

I confess that I wasn’t chagrined by the fact that we cancelled Sunday morning worship last week due to the weather. I was almost giddy! I’m not sure what that says, but please do not feel that you need to analyze me…or judge me!

I confess that I’ve recently been using sermons that I preached 25 years ago. The theology hasn’t changed, but I’ve had to revise some of the illustrations and references like “visiting the Oldsmobile dealer, K-Mart, and the latest cassette tape I purchased.” 

I confess that I often dream of slam-dunking, being the author of a best-seller, and fried scallops! 

I confess that I had planned on giving up putting sugar in my coffee for Lent. I got through the first day…and then backslid to the sweetening! 

And finally, I confess that I so often take the blessings of God for granted, the grace of God as a given, and the love of Christ as an assumed right! I fall short in reaching my God-given potential and habitually forget that he walks closely by my side!

That Judgmental Evangelical Church!

March 4, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     March 4, 2019

                      

Carol and I sat back and watched an episode of Criminal Minds last night. We can’t keep up with all the recorded episodes we have on our DVR, thus the episode we watched was from last October.

Without going into the plot too much, a woman is killed and the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) team is sent to investigate. In looking at the way the woman has been murdered, investigating who her friends are, and her routines, they summarize that there is some connection between what has happened and the church she attends.

That’s when the term “evangelical” gets used! She was involved in an EVANGELICAL church. The way it’s said you could almost put in parentheses after it “You know…one of those!” as the person turned to the side and spat!

The next scene has the team interviewing the pastor. His character comes off as self-righteous and judgmental. Envision a pastor with a whip! The viewer immediately does not like him and, after all, he’s the pastor of one of those EVANGELICAL churches! You are given the impression that “fun” is a four letter word for him.

Several other indicators are that he and his church are narrow-minded, critical, ready to shun sinners, and legalistic. They probably don’t even drink root beer!

Such is the general public’s, or at least those in the entertainment world, view of evangelicals! I wouldn’t have been as bothered by the episode if they would have just said “church”, but those who produce the show probably don’t understand what evangelical means.

The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word “euangelion”, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, an evangelical church focuses on the GOOD NEWS of Jesus Christ.

That good news includes the grace of God, forgiveness, love, acceptance, hope, and peace. 

Some evangelicals, rightfully so, have made a mess of evangelicalism! They’ve reversed the mirror of Jesus. Instead of people seeing the image of Christ in his church they see a bunch of people who seem to have been sucking on lemons too long! I’ll be honest! There are a number of people in churches I’ve served who are about as pleasant as hemorrhoids!

It should not be! “Good News” has become religious rhetoric, and grace has been replaced with guilt. 

One of my closest friends in ministry, Rev. Tom Bayes, recently urged me to write a book about “church stuff”. Tom and I, along with our other clergy friend, Rev. Chuck Moore, spent years serving churches in the Lansing, Michigan area and sharing stories over lunches. There was a lot of laughter in the midst of our burger-munching. I think I’ll take him up on his request. The book, however, will revolve around a pastor who laughs, jokes around with the people of his congregation, enjoys life, and exhibits the Joy of life. AND he will be a pastor who firmly holds to the belief that Jesus is “Good News”!

Maybe I’ll even make him…you know…one of those Baptist pastors!