My Life.Church Sermon I will never preach

This is too long for a blog, so if you don’t read it all, I get it.  Should you read it, I hope it encourages you.  I did the whole thing in a dream this morning, and I almost never share dreams, but, here goes.  Sermon follows:

I have listened to speakers speak here for years, and they begin the same way.  “I love Craig and Amy so much, you have an amazing church, and I am so delighted to be here today.”  It is that last phrase where I listen, you know, to hear what they say.  Are they saying, “I am humbled and honored, truly!” Or, does it smell a little more like “You are in for a treat!  I think I have something amazing.  In fact, a lot of folks think I am amazing!”

So how could I possibly be preaching here?

What I think happened was that we made a small mistake!  You know how when a manager walks to the mound and he starts to touch one fore arm, but he puts a couple of fingers on the other, like he wasn’t sure, and he could not remember who was warmed up in the bullpen?”

I am the bullpen.  I am that guy in the bullpen whose name is Tom, or Tim, I am pretty sure it wasn’t Tammy.  He is a member that we don’t call members at LifeChurch, but we have a couple of hundred thousand of those.  He tithes most months, but more people are completely faithful there.  He and Jill lead a life group just like 251 others at Stillwater.  And the Stillwater campus is a mistake.  If we had not added it when we did; we would not fit the profile where they hope to expand these days, but GT and Megan were commuting every weekend and God was working, and today, one in ten staff members in all the Life Churches have passed through Stilly.

That kind of “mistake”.

So, they called the wrong guy out of the bullpen.  In fact, someone might investigate where I got a uniform and dropped down into the bullpen with my glove and enough swag to act like I just got traded from a Canadian hockey team where I was the equipment manager.

Wrong guy.  I am a small mistake, but LifeChurch is a great place because I have been comfortable in the dark watching Craig on screen.  He is really taller in person.

Well, maybe I am here because you are a small mistake.  Maybe you have a sin or two because you somehow think they make you cool.  See, I swear for effect some days when teaching or making a point.  And like everyone who smokes I have it under control, except when my daughter in law, Fair Claire, sends a request through my son that I watch my mouth during Christmas in front of the grandkids.  You see, “under control”.

It is freaky, but sometimes when the stress is bad, or my health is in the toilet I swear more.  Isn’t that the dumbest thing?  I think I can pin my potty mouth on something outside me when the Bible says, “The stuff coming out of your mouth is the overflow from your heart.”  Oops.  My heart’s overflow must resemble my toilet overflowing.

So there you are, sitting in the dark, or with your computer using earphones so your family and neighbors don’t know that Jesus is the best thing that ever happened to you, but you seem to make more mistakes than progress in following Him.

It could be that you love Jesus, and are astonished that He left heaven, lived and did all those astonishing miracles, and got religious people angry at Him — and they crucified Him thinking, “That takes care of that;” only God raised Him from the dead to emphasize His boy was telling the truth.  All along.  Every day.  In every miracle for undeserving people.  Jesus was telling the Truth, and telling Truth so well that it turns out that Truth is one of His Names.  Truth has a Name above all names and it is — wait for it: Jesus.

And that right there makes Jesus, forgive me, unbelievable.  I mean Jesus was just like us except for the perfection thing, having Satan give Him the VIP tour of earth and testing, miracles everywhere, demons testifying to who He was when He was trying to be cool about it.  Okay, not exactly like me.  I am an example of human, I think.

And that makes me uncomfortable even in the dark some weekends at LifeChurch.  Jesus was true to His calling, true to His message.  And I fail my calling, and some days I fail His message that I deliver.  You know how people say Craig is the same in the pulpit and at home except when driving?  My wife and sons and daughter in law would all say, “He is the same in both places” with all their fingers crossed in back of them.

When Jesus walked out to the mound, Heaven rushed the infield to breathlessly watch.  When I walk to the mound, people are checking their programs and smartphones and shrugging at each other, “Who is that guy?”  No name on the back.  His pants are too big, and why can’t he stand up straight?  How come he isn’t even listed?

In spite of all that, I found some small things that surprised me in the Jesus story.

There is this day when Jesus has been feeding thousands and the people want to make Him an earthly king, and Jesus realizes that before He can address the crazy crowd, He has to get rid of His disciples.  All of them.  He puts them in boats and dismisses them, and only after sending away His own does He lose the crowd.  The disciples were wanting to drink the Kool-Aid.  They were ripe for everything except what Jesus was doing.

Jesus also had been handing out freebies on miracles, food, healings, casting out demons and He knew it was time to ratchet up the message, call people to faithfulness, to followship, to maturity — and people were walking away — and this is the part that froze my heart.  Jesus turns to His disciples and asks, “Do you want to walk away, too?”

And all of God’s plans and power, and all of God’s predestining, and all of God’s plan for planet Earth comes to this point.  Jesus hands the ball to failers (not failures by God’s grace) but failers like me.  Like you.

And obviously, at this moment, Jesus is thinking that handing the Gospel Football to these guys is maybe not going to work.  He is looking at Peter who suffers from foot in mouth disease.  The two Sons of Thunder who think the coolest thing about Jesus is that He can call down fire from heaven and maybe blow away an entire town.  Matthew is a never ending fountain of questions.  Mary of Magdala is still conflating a puppy love for followship.  And Judas, Judas is stealing from the till and will pointlessly betray Jesus at the critical time, just before Peter denies Him three times.

Do you want to walk away, too?

I don’t know any mature Christians who have not made some sort of truce with church and religion, and decided to still love Jesus more than what they see in other Christians.  Ouch.

Some of them believe Christ even though what they saw in me made believing Jesus tough, because what they saw in me made them want to walk away.  OUCH!

My wife, Jill has this thing that thunders in the silence, “Your Plan A was to use us all along?  Even with the Holy Spirit, what were you thinking, God?”

Which forces the question.  Is God missing something, a lot of somethings, or did God decide what was most true about us before He began the experiment?

I am a creature saved by God’s grace and I lust for if-not-sex then intimacies where I should not, and toys, and money that buys toys.  All are true.  Now for the HUGE question.  What is more true?

Life and faith have daunting conundrums.  The light coming out of these lights, is it waves or particles?  Yes.

Is Jesus fully God and fully man?  Yes.

Is God three or One?  Yes.

Am I a sinner or God’s dearly bought son?  Yes.

And Jesus knows how I struggle here!  Remember that night before they killed Him?  No?  Let me tell you how crazy this is.  The die is cast.  The trial members have been assembled in two houses.  Soldiers are following Judas to find Jesus, and Jesus is in this Garden with his sleeping disciples, yes they failed Him this time as well, and Jesus is sweating blood!  No kidding.  Think about it.  Sweating blood.  I would say He was really wrestling, wouldn’t you?  And here was the question.  Here was Jesus’ big question.  It was time to die.  It was time to suffer.  For better or for worse, there was nothing more Jesus could do for the disciples.  And it all looked impossible.

Jesus was asking for a bye.  Jesus was asking to be let out of this part of the contract.  He went from thinking about it, to truly tempted to bail out.  He was sweating blood.

Jesus was asking if God could be happy with less.

And God thundered back in silence to His beloved Son.  Sure you feel this drag, this bent to failing, and this understandable horror at dying.  Now, which is more true?  You’re wanting to bail out, or you are My beloved Son with Whom I am well pleased?

He knows when I want to fail.  When I want to be let off the hook.  When I want to be left alone.  When I don’t want to measure up.  How afraid I am to walk out to the mound some days.  When I want God to settle for less from me.

Occasionally God sends someone to remind me who and Whose I am.  Occasionally, He puts me in the stands to remind some friend, or student, or colleague what is most true about them — that he or she is a son or daughter of the High King and He was right to give her salvation and call her to follow Him.

But sometimes, God is silent.  He and heaven hold their breath to see me come through, to see me come true, knowing that I face bogeys.  Some days, I am sweating bullets, and God nods silently to His angels who will never understand why God trusts us, and he says, “Let the bet ride on my boy, Thomas.”

The angels can think of as many reasons as I can, maybe more why God should spread His bets, and God laughs, and according to Ephesians 1, He is gesturing that He was right to let anything ride on me.

God’s bet is riding on me because He has given me Jesus and Spirit, and watches to see me act on what is most true about me.

How about you?

 

 

Nabeel, faith and noes.

Nabeel Qureshi was a most educated youth minister.  Most never attend med school, maintain the years of A’s it takes to get and stay there, and they don’t face proliferating possibilities like Nabeel faced.  He wrestled to be a doc on three continents, to retell his conversion from Islam on six continents, and encourage this newest generation’s dreams.

I suggested he write a book.  To keep it simple.  To reveal his story as a form other Muslims could follow simply.  Not easily, but distilling complex questions into simple steps Nabeel took to follow God, Allah, he thought.

He grew into a warrior.  I watched postings to YouTube and the web and laughed aloud, “Be the first on your block to merit your very own fatwah!”

Then Nabeel was married, having a beautiful child and dying of stomach cancer as Muslims cheered wildly at life’s cruel judgment.  I prayed God to heal him.  I posted one such prayer to this blog.

God said, “No.”

People apologize for God, and bend the light on the matter saying, “God healed him, He just healed Nabeel by taking him to heaven.”  Touching sentiment.  God said, “No” to healing Nabeel and extending his impact here.  Nabeel died.

How does faith look after that?  For Nabeel, watch his haunting YouTubes on our hope in Christ out of this world into the next.  Beautiful.  Courageous.  Faith-filled.  Watch them.

For me it’s a gut kick.  Worse than watching your college team get man handled by a 3A high school squad.  Having been injured to the point of dying, I know that if I choose who prays for me, I want them praying for me like I’d pray for me to live.  If you hide behind, “whatever is Your Will, Father” in some non-invested theologically secure place, then save your breath.  No one knows if those prayers get answered.

Yes.  It’s harder to pray like cheering for your team, like cheering for mom if she’s sick.  Yes, the let downs are harder, but prayers uttered in wildly cheering faith is what I hope for if it is me, my child, my wife.  Those answers stiffen your prayers for decades.  Will you ride with me?

When we get off, finally, on the other side, I’ll introduce you to Nabeel.  He cheers from the other side now, see?

 

Decanting Souls

Jan asked, “Will we decant mom on Sunday, then?”

The week was full of boxes crammed with scrapbooks, photos, and correspondences — scattered through the house, the storage building, the pool house and workshop: detritus of Barbara K. Johnson’s life.

We laughed hard to hear little Jill write her mother in the hospital, that she neither believed her brother that mom was in the hospital, or worse, was having a baby and it was another boy.  It was funniest when Jan read, “And please do NOT call him Douglas” to the youngest, Doug.  So my dearest Jill held strong opinions at age nine and could articulately express them.

We each mutely read the neatly typed letter wherein Philip, their dad, said he had not had sexual relations with the woman he had run off with over the weekend, and he would return as pastor if all could be forgiven.

Steve quietly sorted the box with all of the bills that Phil returned unpaid to the hospital, pharmacy, and utility company after he left for good with the woman and emptied all of the accounts.

And I was struck by the probability that all great fiction, all award winning plays are barely recognizable shadows of authors’ families, or the shattered family of friends, or the shattering family at home.

And all these years later, the siblings taking cues from the astounding woman of God they had as mother, these siblings who had visited the man of unpaid bills in the nursing home as he wept and laughed with them, were choosing what will go to flame tonight in a bonfire of vanities, joys, and deep realities.  And they cho0se what to give to children and grandchildren.

Doug, who happens to be an award winning woodcarver has carried out one last wish from Nana, Barbara, and carved a final resting box for her ashes, kept safe in the plastic bag in which they were delivered over a year ago.  And on Sunday we will decant her ashes, as reverently as the siblings decanted the correspondences, savored them, laughed and wept over them.  We will decant them into Doug’s box preparing them for February when these four proud children of Barbara K Johnson will head to a windswept cemetery in South Dakot to send her ashes on a slow journey of becoming one with the dust of Alcester from whence she came.

And that will be the end of it, unless you know anything about Jesus and final banquets at the juncture of time and eternity, where we will decant life in the limited way we know it here, as an aperitif toward heaven.

On Being A Yankee Fan

On being a Yankee’s fan

When I was a child, my family sojourned from Texas’ sweltering coast out to New Mexico to a sprawling Baptist convention center called Glorieta.  It accommodated 3,000 people using a staff of retirees that oversaw a few hundred college students working for God and very little money. 

Some division of the Sunday School Board trained each week all summer and all held worship every night of the summer except Fridays.  My mother’s parents, my Mamma and Pappaw, managed various posts and spent their summers up there. 

A child from the Texas Gulf Coast wearing a sweater in July?  Climbing over boulders, chasing Horned Toads, seeing deer, and going rock hunting on afternoons to find mine tailings of white quartz interlaced with rose — these comprised as good a picture of Heaven as I needed to that point. 

And in the evenings I raptly listened to music from musicians around the country in choirs, orchestras, and an organ that shook my chest — except when Mammaw could get the Yankees on her little transistor TV with rabbit ears.  We hid out in her hotel room. 

Mammaw added her own coverage about Marris, Mantle, Yogi and the Boys of Summer like a school girl swooning at Elvis.  I watched a grainy four-inch screen where the diamond was easy to recognize, but Marris and Mantle looked like identical grainy twins.  How did she know which was which?

When the Yankees were ahead, all was marvelous.  When the world’s evil forces arose to thwart them, it drove my Mammaw to the closest swear word in her extensive vocabulary — “Bears!” 

So the Yankees, God, the Mountains, astounding choral and orchestral music all formed one seamless, living and breathing snapshot of Heaven for me. 

Fan for life.  That included Steinbrenner and Reggie, Mr. October, Jackson who came, and like summer faded in their times. 

And in this latest instantiation it included the Rocket, Pettite, The Captain, and Mariano Rivera, who along with others led a Bible study in that hallowed ground while quietly making others fan his career into the Hall of Fame. 

The Yankees are hopelessly out of the playoffs.  They will rebuild.  Mariano is the next-to-last member of a team that came together — to leave.  He played his last game this week, and he could have rolled every pitch to home plate; Yankee fans would still have stood to give an ovation to one of their longest serving, brightest Boys of Summer.  And Mammaw?  She cheered from Heaven because the best Yankees love God, and the organ music as it fills the park, and the orchestral smack of the bats, gloves, and crowds; and when the air gets cold in October as in the Mountains?  Then they play their best.