Saturday, September 25, 2010

Making Yourself at Home Jeremiah 29:4-7

Many of you know that I have a rather large collection of elephants. They come from across the globe and are made of things ranging from volcanic rock from Indonesia to water buffalo tusk from India, from Delftware china from Holland to rough hewn jade bought in the streets of Bangkok. I bought the first of the lot in the mountains of Northern Thailand where elephants still call home. In Thailand these mighty and majestic beasts once served as the military mounts to royalty, beasts of burden for those harvesting wood in the jungles, and served as the symbol of the Siam. Now you are more likely to find the elephant used for jungle treks for tourist or in elephant parts were they are trained to play soccer or do demonstrations of might for interested audiences. One afternoon I had the opportunity to talk to an elephant handler who had brought his team to Southern Thailand. I look with amazement as I noticed what contained them was not massive mobile stables or portable steel fencing. Instead, these huge and powerful beasts were six to eight feet lengths of well worn-seemingly semi rotten- rope tied to one back leg of the elephant on one end and secured to a ten inch wooden stake driven part way into the ground on the other. I thought that with a tug of the leg the rope would snap or the wooden stake would pop from the earth. So I ask the handler why the elephants did not simply walk away. He explained that when an elephant is young it a heavy chain is tied to its leg and a secured to a steel stake driven deep in the earth. For a while the young elephant will struggle and fight, trying to break free. After a while it would quit trying; not just for the day but for a life time. As hard as it is to image, for huge elephant in front of me - a veritable bulldozer with four legs - the memory the so real for him that the feel of the old rope on his leg was enough to stop him from going anywhere. The powerful and majesty beast is more tethered to its memory than to the rope.

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah found the people living in exile in Babylon stuck. They longed to be back in Jerusalem. Their shared memories so tethered them to another place and another time that they were missing living life where they were. They waited, they wondered, and they dreamed of another place and another way of life, and in the process they found themselves stuck. While their bodies may have been captive in Babylon, they had allowed the heart and mind to be held captive by the power of their memory and their future hope and dreams. So of us can relate to how they must have felt. We find ourselves stuck, not able to go forward and knowing there is no way to go back. We fight and fight and fight and grow weary. After a while there is no more energy left to fight so we wake up every day and go through the motions, waiting for something to happen; for something to change. God’s word through Jeremiah to the exiles were life changing for them and can be life changing for us as well.

His first words to them are that you are where you are on purpose. It was easy for the Jewish exiles to blame the Babylonians for their difficult place in life. It is always easier to blame someone else. But Jeremiah tells them that God had carried them from Jerusalem to Babylon in exile. This was not a mistake of history or a tragic series of unintended consequences. God’s hand had brought them there. While the place where they found themselves was difficult, it was time to find new hope. God was ready to move in the lives. God is ready to move forward in your life.

Next Jeremiah tells them to invest themselves into community where God had placed them. The prophet tells them to quit waiting on life, but to settle down, to make themselves at home where they were. The images he uses are those everyday living kind of things; build a house, plant a garden, get married, and let your kids get married. He told them to make the kind of life where they could prosper – to find life and joy – where they were. This word was countercultural then, and is equally countercultural now. There were plenty of voices telling them to wait until they were back in Jerusalem to begin family; that the life they wanted and planned for was just around the corner. In verses 8 and 9 we hear God tell the people’ 8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: "Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them," declares the LORD. In other words; ignore the people that are telling you what you want to hear just because they think you will like it, they are lying to you. God wanted them to realize that their hope is not found in another place, it is found in living out their lives faithfully as the people of God wherever they were. They did not have to be in Jerusalem to be the people of God. Their hope was not to be locational but relational; their future would not be born not at the Temple but in trust. God was ready to move through their witness right where they were.

It is so tempting to wait on whole heartedly investing ourselves until things are like we want them to be. For some there is a memory of a golden moment, and ideal era, when life was good and the memory tethers them from living in the now. Others of us have constructed an image of the perfect family, the perfect home, the perfect church, the perfect life and find themselves tethered to a future hope. The word from God is to quit waiting, to settle down, to wholeheartedly invest yourself, to make yourself at home where you are right now. God stands ready to be a part of your life story, no waiting, no wondering, right now.

Another word Jeremiah brought the exiles to invest themselves into the people among whom God has placed them. Jeremiah told them to seek peace and prosperity for the city and to pray for the city. Jeremiah wanted them to remember and live out their lives as the people of God in the midst of the city and as a witness to all they encountered. He wanted the exiles to understand that were a people with a unique story – a story shaped by the hand of God. Their investment in the lives of the people and their prayers for the city would bring a witness of God’s power, God’s peace, and a prosperity that was more than silver and gold – prosperity of a life with God. They did not have to wait for some future with God in Jerusalem. It was time for them to break away from the memories and future dreams that held them back and live their lives boldly as the people of God.

We too are people of the story. Earlier in our worship service we celebrated a time at the table. We remembered that we are the people of the incarnation; the people of “God is with us.” We remembered that we are the people of body, celebrating the work and the teaching of Christ. We remembered that we are the people of the shed blood, forever shaped by the blood of Christ shed for the forgiveness of sin. We celebrated that we are the people of the resurrection; that place where the cross gives way to the empty tomb; where judgment gives way to grace; and where death gives way to life - real life now and life with God for eternity. But celebration of the story is not enough. It is supposed to come to alive in us and through us. We are the living witness of the story – the people transformed by the cross and resurrection – a people living in its redeeming power and witnesses this grand act of God. Our city sees people consumed by their own wants and own needs every day. Our city sees people who are willing to exploit, even destroy, others for their own benefit every day. Our city sees people who are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead every day. Our city cries for the people of God to tangibly live out their lives our faith in their midst, to give them a glimpse into God’s way. We are called to invest ourselves into the people around us that they might find the peace that God intends for them and prosperity of a life in God. God stands ready to work in our witness to impact those around us.

We also hear from this Old Testament prophet that we are called to pray for our city. Many of you know that I spend most of last week in Texas for a conference and a seemingly endless series of meetings. It was fun to tell people how much I loved Oklahoma City and what a great place it is to live in. But, as I prepared for this message I had to ask myself how often I prayed for our city. We are easily drawn to prayer for people we know and love, but Jeremiah instructs the exiles – and by extension all those gathered in this room – to pray for the city where they now live. He tells them, and us, that our wellbeing is tied to the wellbeing of all who call the city home. How might we act differently, serve differently, care differently, pray differently, if we truly believed that our wellbeing was tied to our city’s? What if we understood that our presence is supposed to make a difference in the halls of power and at the table of the poor? What if we understood that our prayers were critical in how God moved in our city? This is exactly what Jeremiah pled for the exiles to understand and what we must claim in this moment. God stands ready to work through our prayers to change the life of our city.

What is keeping you tethered to the unsatisfying place where you are in life? Is the power of memory that holds you captive? Is it the waiting for what might be just around the corner? Is it the hesitation to fully engage waiting for some future idealized perfect situation? Though our relationship with God we have the power to move forward. No more excuses. Hear God’s word for you. 11 For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you," declares the LORD. Seize the life that God has for you now and let others be transformed by your witness and your prayers.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Spirit of Power and Love 2 Timothy 1:3-7

You’ve never met him but his ministry influences our church every day. His name was Dr. John Lawrence and he was my mentor in ministry. He entered my life at a time when I was out of church, wondering if it was worth the risk to go back. On a youth retreat at the NC Baptist Assembly at Fort Caswell, similar in function to Falls Creeks, he walked and talked with me and let me see a more gentle face of Baptist life. Several years later when I understood my call to ministry he was there to encourage and support me. I vividly remember a conversation on being a pastor when he told me; “Many people make it too hard. You do one thing and the rest will follow. That one thing is to fall in love with the people. If you love them you will want to be with them when they are sick and hurting; you will want to be with them when the celebrate a new marriage or a new birth, you will want to pray for them because you will want God to move in their lives; you will want to work on sermons and Bible studies because you want them to grow in God. Just fall in love with the people and everything else will follow.” I took him seriously and have tried to shape my ministry by falling in love with the people God placed in my life in ministry. It is my prayer you see that spirit of love in the way I serve with you and beside you.

It was John’s voice that offered the sermon at my ordination. He challenged me to bear the marks of Christ. The message was so challenging that I wanted to stop him half way through – to let me work on the first set of marks – and then we could come back together and hear the rest of list and then I would go out and work on them too. In John’s later years, as his strength and health waned, I had the opportunity to love and encourage him. He told me that he was proud of the man and the minister I had become, and I wanted him to see his finger print in all that I did. He died while Beth and I were serving overseas, so I did not get to go to his funeral. If I had, I would have probably told those gathered that I was still working on the list of the marks of Christ he called me to so many years before. I am thankful for the role John played in my life and for his permanent mark on my way of ministry.

I think that Paul and Timothy had this same kind of relationship, but maybe even closer. First and Second Timothy are letters that Paul wrote to Timothy to encourage him and challenge him. He saw God working in Timothy and he expected much from the young man that he loved and invested in The early church understood that these letters offered something special not only to Timothy, but to all who were trying to walk the way of God.. In our focal passage we hear the mentor Paul speaking gently, but strongly to the young minister Timothy. We hear Paul as he writes; 3I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. 4Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.

I can almost see Paul’s face. He wants Timothy to know that he remembers. He remembers Timothy’s face and Timothy’s life of faith every time he prays. He remembers Timothy’s tears. He remembers his Father like relationship with Timothy and longs to see him. The very idea of being together in conversation again brings Paul joy. This is intimate language and emotion. It reflects a very real and personal investment in Timothy’s life. I fear that sometimes our church relationship, while valuable and important to us, are not as deep and abiding as they could and should be. Can you imagine what it would feel like to have someone invest like Paul did in Timothy in your life and faith walk? Can you image the kind of support and encouragement you might feel? Can you imagine what it would be like to know that someone is praying for you every day – night and day? Can you imagine investing your life into someone else faith journey were you love and encourage them; where you pray constantly for them; where you dash to church to see them because you could not wait to see them and see how God was working in their life? I wonder why we would settle for less.

Paul continues; 5I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. Paul reminds Timothy of the testimony of his mother and grandmother that served as his first witness of faith. These grand women of faith have shown him the way. Paul uses a great phrase to talk about Lois and Eunice’s faith. In the NIV we hear of a faith “which first lived in your grandmother…and your mother.” Truett Seminary professor Hulitt Gloer tells us in his commentary on this text that this word “‘lived’ literally means ‘to be at home,’ indicating the depth and extent to which their faith has become an integral part of their lives.” (1) So think about this verse again, I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which you saw first at home in the lives of your grandmother and mom. I believe this same sense of a faith that is truly at home in your everyday life is truly alive in you. This image of faith is profound. What do you think a faith that is at home – settled in – cozy and comfortable – sitting by the fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate kind of at home- would look like? Who are the faces that come to mind when you think about those who were your witnesses of faith? What are the voices that ring in your ear as you think about those who helped you hear the way of salvation through Jesus Christ? The strongest illustrations are the ones from your own life that stir you to memory and encourage you in faithfulness. This is the kind of faith that finds its natural expression in the way we lived life and related to others. Paul saw this kind of spiritual legacy alive and living in Timothy’s life and wanted for it to become contagious.

“Because Paul is confident that this excellent faith has been passed down to Timothy, he’s writing to remind Timothy to keep his zeal for God aflame.” (2) He writes; 6For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. Paul’s imagery is unmistakable. Like a campfire that must be stoked back to blaze in the cool of the morning hours, Paul wanted Timothy to fan the flame of his gift from God – to express himself in faith in ministry with absolute abandon. A mother celebrated her son’s new faith. With joy she tells one of the older grand leaders of the church, “My son is on fire for God.” He tilted his glasses down the bridge of his nose and peered over them and pronounced. “Calm down woman! He’ll cool off soon enough.” Do you remember when your faith burning brightly and you could feel the warmth of its glow? Do you remember the moments when you were ready to do anything – to go anywhere – to give anything for the sake of God? So how is your fire burning? Does it need to be fanned into a blazing fire again or are you content to lives with the smoldering coals and the dying embers?

The faith and the spiritual gifts that defined Timothy were given to him for a purpose. The same is true for us. Paul reminds the young minister, and reminds us through him, that; God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. Timothy knows of the crucifixion of Christ, has witnessed the imprisonment of Paul, and knows the reality of persecution of people of the Christian faith. (3) It is easy to forget this in the safe confines a room like this one. But when we hear testimonies like we did last week from Yassar – a testimony of pain and persecution in our time – it gives us a glimpse of what Timothy must have to deal with every day. Perhaps the question that might draw us in asks how many of us sometimes find ourselves claimed by fear, paralyzed with uncertainty. How many times to we worry about potential outcomes that never come to pass? How many of us fear rejection or isolation or failure? How many of us wonder if we have enough resources or if we can really trust that God is with us? Paul wants Timothy – wants us – to be clear, emotional and spiritual fear is not given by God. God gives something very different, a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.

Paul wants Timothy to press on, to move forward boldly, with absolute abandon.
• Instead of fear, God offers power for the work at hand. Timothy does not serve out of his own power – his own strength – his own wits – but out of a spirit of power given by God.
• Instead of fear, God offers love, a love that can forgive and transform. The kind of faith that burns like fire – the flame of faith in born in a love that changes everything and everyone it touches.
• Instead of fear, God offers a spirit of self discipline. This is the kind of self discipline born in a faith that it is a home in our everyday lives and our every day decisions. This kind of self disciple empowers our witness just as Timothy was shaped by the witness of his grandmother and mom.

I can imagine the smile on Paul’s face as he looked over these words and thought about Timothy. He remembered him and the faith he saw in this young minister and dreamed for that kind of faith to become a contagious movement across the early church. His desire for this young minister is the same that God has for us this morning. Remember those who shaped your faith story and cling to those memories; remember when your faith burned hot and reclaim it; let go of the fear and live out our live in the power, the love, and the faithfulness we find only through the spirit of God. Be encouraged. Your faith matters – your testimony matters – and God is ready to work in you and through you. Live lives of faith with total abandonment to God. Live in the spirit of power and love.

Pray with me, and hear again the pray of abandonment that we prayed together responsively earlier in our service. Let this prayer become your own.

Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures. I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.

(1)W. Hulitt Gloer, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus. Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, (Smyth and Helwys: Macon, 2010), p.221.
(2)Available online at on September 17, 2010.
(3)Heard as a common theme in a number of different print and online commentaries.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Movie You Have to See

On Tuesday Beth, Elizabeth, and I took part in the premiere of the independent film Heaven's Rain. It is a great film that offers an incredible depiction of the power of forgiveness.

The movie is based on the true story of Brooks Douglas and his family. Brook's parents were Foreign Mission Board missionaries to Brazil, who had just gotten clearance to go back to their work in the Amazon. In the in between time Brooks father served as pastor at Putham City Baptist Church here in the OKC metro. On an October night in 1979 two men broke into the Douglas household and murdered Richard and Marilyn Douglas, assaulted and shot Brook's sister, Leslie and shot Douglas, leaving the two to die where they lay. It would be easy to become so captivated by the crime story that you miss the power of what unfolds. Douglas, a Baylor University and OCU Law School graduate, is elected as the youngest State Senator in Oklahoma history at age 26. He becomes the author and advocate for a piece of defining victim's right legislation. As Douglas and Leslie struggle to come to terms with all that has happened to them, they are asked to serve as witnesses at trial related to the two gunmen who broke into their home and devastated their family. In 1996 they attend the execution of one gun man. The moment also provides Brooks the opportunity to confront the other gun man. The encounter turns out much different than he anticipated; instead of a moment of vengeance it becomes a life changing moment of forgiveness. The movie is not explicitly Christian, but the witness of the Douglas family and the central role of forgiveness is powerful and unmistakable. I am going to encourage everyone I know to see it.

This movie has become personal to me. A number of scenes were shot here at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City. The preparatory process and filming schedule allowed me to become friends with Brooks. He is a good addition of my life. He is a good man who has poured himself into this film so that a word of hope might emerge from tragic events of that night. Although this is a lower budget independent film, the quality is very high because a number of excellent actors agreed to be a part of the telling of the story. The cast includes: Mike Vogel (currently staring in CBS's primetime show Miami Medical, previously seen in movies including Cloverfield and She's Out of My League) playing the young Brooks Douglas; Tayrn Manning (whose first major acting role in Crazy/Beautiful, which lead to roles in 8 Mile, Hustle & Flow, Sons of Anarchy, and Love Ranch) playing Leslie;Erin Chambers (who has appeared in several prime time television shows, starred in the independent features Tears of a King and The Errand of Angeles, most recently been recurring on ABC's General Hospital and just wrapped a lead role in the feature film Nesting) playing the pivotal role of the reporter trying to tell the story; and a number of others. Brooks takes on the unenviable challenge of playing the role of his father and does a masterful job.

The movie has now been released in LA and Oklahoma City, with opening coming soon in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Because it is an independent film its roll out will be progressive based on theater availability and demand. If you want to see this film in your city let me know and I will connect you to Brooks. To learn more about the movie, check out its website at Grace and Peace, Tom

Below is an article entitled "Heaven's Rain: Forgiveness Finally Comes" written by Douglas Baker, editor of Baptist Messenger. It offers a good take on the film and some interview segments with Brooks.

Oklahoma tragedy remembered in new film

A knock at the door is nothing unusual for a pastor. People in need of everything from driving directions to daily food somehow find their way to a pastor’s home. When a knock came on the evening of Oct. 15, 1979 at the home of Oklahoma City, Putnam City’s pastor, Richard Douglass, nothing out of the ordinary was apparent. Two men simply needed to use the phone. They were welcomed into the house and the Douglass family went about their business—until the sounds of a bullet being loaded into the chamber of a shotgun caused them to realize the unthinkable was about to happen.

Glenn Burton Ake (then 24) and Steven Keith Hatch (then 26) began an over four-hour reign of terror in the lives of Richard (43), his wife Marilyn (36) and their children Brooks (16) and Leslie (12). Richard, Marilyn and Brooks were forced to the floor, bound hand and foot as Leslie was led upstairs and repeatedly raped as her family listened helplessly below. Even at 12, Leslie knew what was about to happen. After the violent rampage was over, she asked almost in a whimper if she could go to the bathroom. They refused. There was little comfort for the little girl whose inner world would never be the same again.

She was finally tied up along with her family as all of them listened to a debate between the two men as to whether they would live or die. As Ake and Hatch ate the family’s dinner, the decision was made: they would die. One by one, they were shot. The couple’s wedding rings were taken and a total of $43 in cash. As they sped away, Brooks and Leslie—both severely wounded—drove to the home of a nearby doctor and collapsed.

Of Memories and Meaning

Thirty years later, the story still stings. Oklahomans still recoil with horror as it stands as one of the most heinous crimes ever committed on state soil. The aftermath, however, few really remember—until now. A new motion picture, “Heaven’s Rain,” has been made chronicling the details of that night. And yet the film is more than a mere retelling of the story. Rather, it is the unveiling of the inner world of Brooks Douglass and his sister, Leslie, as they struggle to simply survive after experiencing intense emotional trauma.

Mike Vogel, who plays the role of Brooks Douglass, currently can be seen on a new CBS series, “Miami Medical”—produced by one of the Hollywood’s most famous producers, Jerry Bruckheimer. Vogel’s portrayal of Brooks Douglass peers behind the walls of his heart and reveals a young man still suffering from the memory of that night in his youth.

Frustrated with the legal system which trivialized the rights of victims, Douglass made the decision to go to law school at night. The Oklahoma City University law graduate soon made his way to the Oklahoma State Senate. His first initiative as a newly minted senator was to champion a bill that would not simply memorialize his parents, but establish a law that would protect future crime victims who, in Douglass’ words that now ring famous on the floor of the Oklahoma senate chamber, “step over the bodies of the victims” in an effort to seek justice for their murderers.

Vogel captures the upheaval in Brooks Douglass’ life as he finds himself penniless, curled up in a sleeping bag by candlelight listening to the tape of a sermon by his father. The sound of the recorded words made the distance of death seem less. It had been years since he had seen his father, but something in that sermon still resonated with him. The message of forgiveness preached by his Dad was not a soft message of live and let live. To the contrary, his father’s sermon sounded forth a note of praise for God’s judgment.

“God’s judgment is precious,” he said from the Putnam City pulpit. He then carefully explained the forgiveness that must wash over the lives of those who encounter the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Abandoned by his wife and largely alone as the days passed toward the time when he would watch one of the killers be executed, Vogel skillfully reveals aspects of Douglass’ life and emotional state once hidden from his own sister. It was from that sermon that “heaven’s rain” is first heard as the memorable phrase inside Brooks’ head. Over and over again, it raised its voice through the corridors of time to a mourning son never quite able to move past what happened when he was 16 years old.

Quality and Clarity

For a relatively low-budget film, it is remarkable in its quality and clarity. The pace of the movie is such that while flashbacks interact with more current scenes, there is never a hint of confusion as anyone who sits to watch the film will discover. The movie opened to rave reviews last week in Los Angeles, where Brooks Douglass now lives. The cast represents some of the movie industry’s best talent for a film that was largely produced through private funding and a smattering of extras and volunteers.

Douglass, (now 46), also steps in front of the camera to play the role of his father. With ease, he assumes the character of a man he greatly loved. Richard Douglass was a missionary to Brazil with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board (as it was then named) and was, at bottom, a theologian. One of the scenes also showcases the character of a man who trusted in God’s providence and was seldom shaken by life’s difficult days.

Soon after the last ring of a bell on a small manual typewriter was heard, the missionary/pastor Richard Douglass finished his doctoral thesis. A celebration was in order as Richard and Marilyn briefly left their children for some time together. As they returned home, they found the walls covered with snowflakes which Brooks and Leslie had made. On closer examination, Richard discovered that the paper from which these snowflakes came to life was none other than the pages of a doctoral thesis. Before the days of computers, this meant that years of work was lost. As Brooks apologized, his father took him in his arms and simply asked that next time he needed some paper for a project to simply ask before he started to work.

Courage and Consequence

“Heaven’s Rain” penetrates beyond the surface scenes of a man fighting for the cause of victim’s rights to the depths of anguish between him and his sister; him and the memories of his past; and ultimately to an encounter with the essence of evil itself until, almost unexpectedly, forgiveness emerges through years of struggle as a healing balm to a troubled soul. Far more than simply a “decision” to forgive, forgiveness for Brooks Douglass is perhaps best personified as walking through the valley of the shadow of death and emerging on the other side more prepared to live as one redeemed, restored and forgiven through the power of Jesus Christ.

Immediately after some of the news media recently saw the film for the first time, Douglass himself stood to take questions. He cuts the figure of a man who has grown content in his work and calm in his demeanor.

“During the days when we were filming the scene of my father’s death, I realized I was experiencing the moments of my Dad’s final moments on this Earth,” he said.

For him, it seemed both riveting and revolting because that night has forever shaped his life. Those memories have set the direction of his work, and now he stands as a man able to share his story of “Heaven’s Rain” in a way that is both captivating and compelling.

Years have passed since Richard and Marilyn Douglass departed this life. The lives of their children have, in many ways, been a series of twists and turns leading up to this project where they courageously tell the story of their broken lives. The film’s real value is as a roadmap through suffering where trust and perseverance finally find their end in forgiveness as the key to peace in the midst of great sorrow. For Brooks Douglass and his sister, Leslie, heaven’s rain continues to fall.

For more information on the film:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two stones, a matchstick, and a call for religious liberty

If you looked closely at the bookshelves in my study you would notice rather simple two stones . For many this would be clutter that needed to be thrown away. For me that are precious artifacts, symbols of religious liberty. The two stones are from Kittery, Maine. They act as a reminder that the origins of Baptist life in the South began when the Baptist congregation in Kittery, after a repeated arrests and harassment, were expelled by order of the court in 1684 and boarded a ship that took them to Charleston, South Carolina. The persecution and religious intolerance that had defined Baptist life in England had followed them to these shores. The story of difficulty for Baptist in Kittery is repeated in varying degrees across the early history of our nation. It seems that we have forgotten that Baptist were one of the earliest voices for religious liberty as we spoke as a minority voice, seeking the hope and promise that we could worship as we believed to be right. It is interesting that when we moved from being a voice on the edges to a voice of influence we seemed to quickly forget our history and the need to protect the rights of religious minorities- even when we strongly disagree with them.

Over the past week I have read stories of ministers who seek to justify the torching of a Tennessee mosque. These are the same pastors who love to preach about the Christian martyrs in Indonesia and India who had their churches burned to ash by angry mobs. Now, an insignificant radical church in Florida is dominating world headlines by promising to burn Korans on 9/11. Despite calls from military leaders serving in Afghanistan, US embassy representatives working in the Middle East, and from some key Christian leaders, this arrogant pastor plans to move ahead with his plan. He seeks to be an example for all Christians and wants to make a statement to the world. Those two rocks on my shelf remind me to the rocks Jesus must have been jiggling in his hands when he looked up at an angry mob and told them; “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Somehow I cannot imagine this Jesus of love and redemption showing up at a bonfire designed for religious books. Most of you know that I was a missionary among Muslims in Southeast Asia. I wanted those that I invested my life in to know about a Jesus who brought grace instead of judgment; freedom to those enslaved by the cold religious regiments of Islam. I wanted them to know the Jesus who would look at an angry crowd and turn them away with the power of love rather than hate. I fear that people’s passionate anger has clouded their eyes to the face of Jesus looking up from the Samaritan dirt and with the strike of a match they will unravel the work of countless Christian missionaries and endanger the lives of American soldiers serving across the globe.It seems that they have forgotten that Jesus teaches us in Matthew 5:43-45, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven."

May we, who were once religious outsiders and were persecuted for our faith, demand that the same kind of religious intolerance that once allowed the court in Kittery, Maine to expel be stopped here and stopped now. Our gospel is strong enough to stand against Islam. I staked my life on this belief as a missionary. Our faith is strong enough to handle Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist and others in our midst. We need not fear. Our God does not need people to try save His name in acts of anger, for He came to save us in the power of love. We are not called to do “grand acts for God” in fear and anger, but rather to claim our place as children of God because if God’s grand act of grace for us.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day Reflections

This Labor Day I took a few minutes to think back over the jobs that I have held over my lifetime. It is a pretty interesting assortment. Take a look at my list and let me hear about some of the jobs you have had along the way.

My "real" first job was in 1979 at Biscuitville in Raleigh, North Carolina. Over the course of my time with them I washed dishes, mowed grass, compacted a full dumpster, cleaned out the fry vats, cooked, made biscuits and ran the cash register. The manager, who is now Biscuitvilles Chief Operations Officer, was a great first boss. I finished my high school days working at as a glorified stock boy at a hospital and selling clothes at County Seat (an earlier version of American Eagle). During summers before and during college and during holiday breaks I did whatever I could to make money. During this period I worked construction, made highway signs with a group of ex-cons, installed office cubicles at a nuclear plant, worked third shift at a 24 hour hamburger restaurant, drove a dump truck, served as a summer youth minister, dripped with sweat in the paint shop in a factory, and acted as a contract public relations consultant for a proposed nuclear waste incinerator . Between college and seminary I worked as an apprentice real estate appraiser with the family firm. I married soon after the start of seminary and I turned my attention to ministry and served two churches as youth minister (where the experience was much more valuable than the salary). The season at Good Hope Baptist opened the door for me to become church planter/pastor at what would become Westwood Baptist Church in Cary, North Carolina. From there Beth and I headed across the globe and served as missionaries Southeast Asia, returning five years later to serve as a part of the CBF Global Missions. I now claim First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City as home and serve as its Senior Pastor.

While the journey has offered a host of twist and turns and some pretty odd jobs, each of them taught me something about the value of work and helped shape the man I am today. I was taught that if someone pays you a days for a days labor then you give them your best, now matter what the job. I hope all that I have worked with believe that I gave them my best. I also learned that there are some remarkable people out there doing the best they can to make their life, and their families lives, better. Perhaps the most powerful thing I learned was that there is dignity in any job where you do your best. Whether the job collar is white or blue, our labor is about more than earning a pay check, it is a building a life with the people you work beside each day and showing your character as you pour yourself into the task at hand. Hats Off to those who give their best every day. May those given charge over the labor of others understand that they have been entrusted with people created in the very image of God.

2We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. 3We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. I Thessalonians 1:2-3

Grace and Peace, Tom

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Freely and Wholeheartedly I Chronicles 29:9, 14-17

The memories of the particular worship service have probably become more exaggerated with the passage of time, but it clearly left a lasting impression. When we came into the sanctuary for worship I could not help but notice the stacks of paper on the platform, I just could not imagine what role they would play in our morning experience together. Then we came to the sermon and the pastor walked toward the stacks of paper and began to explain. It seems that each stack represented a level of dollars given to that point in the year by families and individual whose reports composed each stack. He celebrated the stacks that represented larger gifts, and then as he went down the scale his voice became harsher and angrier. Suddenly he was tearing papers and shouting that if the average gift per person represented a tithe of their incomes then people of the church were much poorer than their houses and cars reflected. As I scanned the eyes of the people of the congregation it seemed that each word was a body blow, inflecting pain and tearing them down. I do not think anyone was actually challenged to think about their stewardship. Instead, it seemed most just wanted to survive the service and get out of the way of the angry tirade. Sadly, too many have experienced sermons on giving that were born in frustration and claimed a foundation of guilt, shame, and obligation. These sermons don’t teach us, encourage us, inspire us, or even challenge us. No, too often, these sermons beat us up and we leave church feeling worse – even more broken, than when we walked in the door. It is part of why we hear people say that they hate it when a pastor preaches about money.

When I preached at Tabernacle Baptist Church a few weeks ago I witnessed something in the service that caught me by surprise. When it was time for the offering to be taken, an usher stood at the front of each aisle and they invited tithers to bring their offering forward. A handful went forward. When these tithers had their moment, then and only then, they passed the offering plates down each row for everyone else to give their gift. The message was clear. If you are not a tither – not giving a full 10% of your income, your gift to God was not as important.

I have to confess to you that I do not remember ever being taught about giving in a healthy way. When Beth and I were young married and did not seem to have two nickels to rub together I heard a lot about tithing, but it seemed no one was ready to talk about how to get from where we were to where God wanted us to be. It seemed that all too often pastors celebrated large gifts and somehow seemed to quietly demean smaller gifts, even when they were given sacrificially. I remember sitting in worship having given everything we could, wondering if it was good enough for God.

Our focal passage offers us a very different picture, a much healthier picture, of giving. King David’s dream was to build a grand temple for God. He gave all he could and invited the leaders and the people to join him in raising the needed resources. The response moved him and we hear his prayer of celebration. It paints a picture of giving born in faith and generosity, gifts given freely and wholeheartedly.

David begins; 14 "But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? This rhetorical question captures David’s joy that God would allow him to be a part of God’s work on earth. God has already told David that he would not be the one to build it, his son Solomon would. David was raising money for a temple he would never see. He would never worship in its gates. He would never bring a sacrifice to God and hear the songs of the people in the temple walls. Even with this knowledge, David wanted to do his part to help make the building of the temple possible. He wanted to be a part of what God was doing. We get this same opportunity. Every time we see what God is doing in and through this church, we are joining God in His work. When you see people baptized like last weekend; when you see us commission people to serve in missions in our community and across the globe; when you hear children singing; when you witness people in worship – in each of these moments, and so many others, you are joining God in His work. God could move and minister without us, but God has chosen to invite us to be a part of the great Kingdom story. A healthy approach to giving invites us to give generously to be a part of God’s work in the world.

Recently a friend of mine, Ruben Swint, shared a story that struck home for me in his monthly newsletter. He told of a church where budget giving had fallen behind. One of the congregational leaders suggested they hold a “catch up” offering. (Do you remember the year the Finance Committee held a hot dog lunch with big bottles of ketchup in an effort to help promote a catch up offering?) Well, when they looked at the life of the church they saw that ministries were growing, missions were having global impact, and people were joining on a regular basis. They decided they did not need to catch up, but rather to move forward. This was the challenge they brought to their church family. Their story is our story. We celebrated a strong first quarter of giving together, but since then we have slowly but steadily fallen behind. God has given us the opportunity to be a part of God’s work in this community and the world. To accomplish what is before us we need to choose to give in a way that will let us move forward side-by-side in mission and ministry.

David continues; Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. 15 We are aliens and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. 16 O LORD our God, as for all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name, it comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. David was clear that all that he had came from the hand of God. Our culture of self sufficiency stands in sharp contrast to a theology that begins with the belief that everything belongs to God and all we have comes from God. David had no doubt. He understood that God has made the means for him and his people to be the people of God. We see this even more profoundly because we are a people made the children of God through God’s great act of love and grace through Jesus Christ.

David understood that God had given them all they needed, and more, so that they could be a part of this incredible opportunity to build a temple for God. He understood that when he gave, he was returning to God with joy some of what God has provided for him. He understood that when he gave, his gifts were born out of his authentic relationship with God. A healthy approach to giving understands that our gifts to God are not a debt to be paid but gifts returned to God freely and wholeheartedly out of the joy of our relationship.

It is important to hear that our giving is out of the whole of who we are. It is not choosing a category of our lives where we give of ourselves. Our stewardship is a life stewardship. It means giving of our time, returning to God a portion of the time he has given us. It means giving of our talents. God has uniquely gifted and equipped you for the work of the Kingdom. In Romans 12, we hear Paul tell us 4Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We need each other to accomplish all that God intends for us to do. We belong to each other, so in our sharing with one another we are made better. Our life stewardship also means sharing our financial resources. This is the moment most pastors will dive into a conversation on tithing. But, I want to pause in reality. In 2003 a major study was done across Baptist life and discovered that the average Baptist church member gave just a bit over 2 per cent of their income.(1) I celebrate those who give the tithe of their income. They have historically been the financial foundation of congregations like ours. But, I also celebrate those who give sacrificially; no matter what level or percent it may reflect. For some, giving has been more causal. Instead of a reflection of spiritual choice it is an act of what bills lay available in our wallets. For some, in fact for most, the move from where we are to where we believe God wants us to be in giving will mean a journey of decision. This journey will nudge us to take one intentional step after another that moves us progressively one step closer to the acts of joy and generosity that transform our giving.

Our passage closes with; 17I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things have I given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. David celebrated that he and the people have responded willingly, not out of debt or obligation. They have given freely and wholeheartedly out of the best of who they were and what God had provided for them. We are invited into this picture. No more brow beating stewardship sermons, no more guilt or obligation, but instead becoming a people of generosity, freely and wholeheartedly giving out of authentic dependence and relational joy.

(1)“The State of Giving in the Southern Baptist Convention: Third Report of the SBC Funding Study Committee To the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, September 23, 2003,” available online at on September 2, 2010.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Book Review - The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

I opened the book with a sense of eager anticipation. I had read about the book and had heard several comments on its value. It was a very different read than I anticipated, but I am glad for my encounter with this work. It is probably the most pleasant book on a journey toward death I have ever read.

If you come to the text looking for the linear story of Paul Pausch's journey toward his last lecture, you will find elements of it, but the journey is frequently sidetracked with childhood stories that shaped him, life experiences that inspired him, and observations on life and living that emerge from his core beliefs. The book feels much more like a running conversation than it does a traditional autobiography. But, this unique characteristic is what makes this short text so powerful. The reader gets the sense that you are walking with Pausch in his journey toward his final lecture and that he is eager to share what he has discovered and is discovering along the way. It would have been easy for the book to claim the heavy weight of death as the writer comes to terms with his own mortality. But, Pausch carries the reader a very different direction. Instead of claiming a morbid tone he offers a hopeful spirit and a deep appreciation for the people and experiences that had defined his life story. You can palpably feel the love he has for his family and the pure joy he has found in teaching and leading others in a process of creative discovery. This small book serves as a testimony of life in the shadows of death. It also provides a glimpse into the author's faith that sustains him in his journey. The cancer that claims his life does not define him, the living of his life and his invitation walk at his side does.