If Donald Trump is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question.

Disclaimer: These views are my own, and do not represent the views of the church I serve, or the network of churches with which we associate.

I have been interested in politics and national events since I was a kid. I remember being in kindergarten, sitting in my dad’s lap and watching President Carter on the news. I would eat my Lucky Charms and ask questions about national politics. My interest in politics never waned, even though I’ve never run for office and have no intentions of ever doing so. I did a little campaign work years ago. I even got to ride in a presidential motorcade once, but that’s another story for another time.

I consider myself to be well-informed about current events of consequence, especially about the current presidential race. It’s not that I’m smarter than most. I’m just passionate about politics, like other people are passionate about sports or movies. Those who know me best would affirm that I’m not given to hyperbole, I’m not really excitable, and I rarely use exclamation points in normal communication. I’m writing now because this political cycle worries me more than any in my lifetime.

Specifically, Donald Trump worries me. I blocked off some time today to write a post about why Trump is dangerous, and how he inspires false confidence. I was going to document how he is a narcissistic, yet ultimately spineless bully. Like many bullies, Trump has a big mouth and likes to pick on the weak. But also like many bullies, Trump backs down when punched in the mouth. He follows a regular and predictable pattern of blustering about somebody, but backing off his comments when the inevitable pushback comes.

Trump angered me with his “Mexicans are rapists” rhetoric, trying to pander to white nationalist fears. My daughters attend an elementary school in Southwest Arkansas that is 80% Hispanic. My Hispanic neighbors are hardworking people who want a better life for their kids. They risked their lives for a shot at the American Dream, just like most of us would if we had not been born in America.

We could talk about how Trump is not really any of the things that people claim to support him for being. We could punch holes in his conservatism, his family values, his faith and his business success. But in the end, I decided not to write about all that, because all that’s already been said. And it’s been said by people who are much better at it than I am.

The simple, sad fact of the matter is that it doesn’t even matter. Donald Trump doesn’t lose support, even when he’s proven to be false, or says the most cruel, vile, hurtful, narcissistic, un-Christian and misogynistic things. I can only come to the conclusion that his supporters don’t care what kind of person he is. And if they don’t care, I can’t make them care. Trump is probably the nominee that we will get, because he’s the nominee that our reality-TV-loving society deserves.

I’m writing today because my state (Arkansas) holds its presidential primary tomorrow, as part of the so-called Super Tuesday vote, or as we call it down here, the SEC Primary. As I write, Senator Cruz holds a four point lead at 27% in the polls, followed by Trump and Senator Rubio, tied at 23%. I will take it as a small consolation if my state does not end up in the Trump column when it’s all said and done.

If Trump does become president, I will do my best to be respectful. I’ve often been disappointed in my fellow pastors for their lack of respect for President Obama. We are not called to agree with our leaders, but we have a biblical mandate to honor them. If the New Testament commanded believers to honor Nero, then surely we can honor our leaders. But for now, Trump is not the president, and so I can openly say that I have zero respect for him whatsoever. I pray that he does not become my president. And until he is my president, I can say without reservation that he is one of the most dangerous individuals to attempt to enter public service in my lifetime.

I suspect that many evangelicals support Trump because of a deep-seated fear that our Christian-American way of life is in danger. If that’s true, and believers are looking to Trump to somehow preserve American Christian liberty, then it demonstrates an abject lack of faith. If Trump is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question. The New Testament clearly shows that political power is absolutely unnecessary for the church to be both pure and effective.

“The church” was most spiritually anemic and malicious at the times when it wielded the most political power. If Jesus had intended for the church to marry the state, He would have said so. Instead, Jesus told the disciples to honor and respect the pagan governments under which they served and suffered. And lest we forget, Jesus turned down the opportunity to be king (that’s a lower-case k, a politician).

And so I write this so that I’m on record, not with hopes that I’m going to change anybody’s mind. Instead, I write this to publicly state my disappointment in a Republican base that seems bent on destroying their own party, if not the nation which they claim to love. Intellectually, I’ve been a conservative all my life, and yet I do not rail against liberals and Democrats for being what they are. But I’m railing on Republicans for what they’re about to do. At this moment, I’m ashamed of the Republican Party.

I’m ashamed for an abject lack of leadership within the party for not getting ahead of the Trump problem. I’m ashamed of Republicans who’ve listened to so much Fox News and talk radio that they’re willing to trust Donald Trump to save Christmas, Christianity, baseball, apple pie and western civilization. Finally, I’m ashamed of Baptist pastors who endorse Trump. At best, they’re aligning themselves with the man they think will win. At worst, they actually agree with him. I don’t get it.

Trump scares me, but not just because of what he represents and the implications for America today. Trump scares me because of the lessons of history, and a much bigger prophetic principle at work. If we correctly understand Revelation, a powerful, dynamic, wonder-working leader is coming, and he will convince the majority of the world to willingly follow him. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again, on a grand scale.

People feel scared and downtrodden. Give them a powerful leader who serves up a scapegoat, along with promises of greatness in exchange for overlooking his obvious character flaws.

Watch interviews of Trump supporters, and you’ll routinely hear a form of, “Well I really like him because he says what he thinks.”
There’s a reason why sewers have covers.

Jesus said, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matthew 12:33-34).

Speaking Well of Mr. Hardin

Bill Hardin blogThe Hardin family moved to De Queen in the early 1990’s, and Mr. Bill became part of the church where my dad served as pastor for almost 30 years. Not long after Mr. Bill moved to town, I graduated from high school and left town for more than a decade. After becoming a pastor myself, I returned to De Queen to transition my dad into retirement several years ago. I only knew Mr. Bill a short time in the prime of his life before he began his prolonged, difficult battle with the disease that ultimately claimed his physical life just a few days ago.

Mr. Bill walked a tough road that very few people must walk, suffering from a very rare disease called corticobasal degeneration. It only affects about six of every 100,000 people. He suffered greatly as the disease robbed him of one ability after another… mobility, speech, and ultimately breathing itself. It is a cruel illness, and maybe someday we will find a cure for it. But this is not about the disease that took his life; it’s about the determination with which he faced that disease.

Earlier this week I eulogized Mr. Bill as I stood before his friends and family during his funeral service. Our word eulogy is borrowed from the ancient Greeks, and the New Testament writers used it quite often. It is usually translated as blessed. But if you break it down, to eulogize is simply to speak well of somebody.

He and Mrs. Hardin were married for over 51 years. That in itself is an incredible testimony. For all those years, he loved and cared for his family. His son said of their family’s ethos, “For all the work and for everything else, when it’s all said and done, what’s left is love.” Mr. Bill demonstrated a great deal of love: for God, for his family, and for his friends.

Like all believers should be, Mr. Bill was a hard worker. His family was never in need of anything. He was a dedicated employee, going to work early and staying late. His career enabled him to travel and see Europe.

On his own time, Mr. Bill loved to go “junkin.” He loved estate sales and local festivals. He was known for pulling over on the side of the road to capture a lost hubcap… even if it was on the side of the interstate. He loved to acquire rare things; one of his favorite phrases was, “This is kindy unusual.” He loved to get a good deal, and was always on the hunt for a bargain. His shop is full of these “kindy unusual things” and acquired bargains.

As a young man, Mr. Bill was often sick. At one point, he had missed so much school that he thought about giving up, about quitting school altogether. His mother was in tears and pleaded with him to keep going and finish school. He stuck it out and eventually graduated from high school. From there he went on to Mississippi State University. Getting him through college was a sacrifice for his parents. At one point, it was time for him to return to Starkville and they were $30 short. Today, $30 is a tank of gas or an inexpensive meal out. At that moment, $30 amounted to a financial crisis.

The family just happened to have some junk out in the yard. Somebody just happened to pass by and buy this pile of junk… for $30. And because of that pile of junk, Mr. Bill’s education continued. His mom saw it in spiritual terms: “The Lord will provide.” He was the first college graduate in his family. He became an engineer, specializing in injection molded plastics manufacturing. He managed operations in his native Mississippi and in Arkansas until his retirement.

He was good at stories. For several years, he owned an antiques dealership in Mississippi. He was a Civil War buff, an interest that I inherited from my own father. During our visits in his final months, Mr. Bill and I spent a lot of time talking about sieges, landings, ironclads, cannonballs and generals. His mind was sharp, right up until the end. I’m going to miss our talks. Personally, his faith and endurance were an encouragement to me.

He’s not the first terminal patient who’s faced his dire physical situation with faith-filled endurance. Nor will he be the last. Society, history and pop culture provide us with no shortage of examples of ‘tough guys.’ That phrase itself probably conjures up images for you. In his final months, confined to a hospital bed in his own home, Mr. Hardin probably did not look tough. But appearances can be very deceiving.

Mr. Bill was a good friend. He loved to hang out with his friends in the Rusty Relics tractor club. He was the magneto man, the chairman of carburetors. It would be an understatement to say that he was mechanically inclined. When he was a teenager, he built his own first car from the ground up. When his tractor enthusiast friends needed help with a project, they knew they could count on Mr. Bill.

As his illness progressed, Mr. Bill did not sleep well at all. He spent many long nights lying awake, unable to move or care for himself. He thought a lot about his friend Dewey, who lived just across the way. They had been neighbors and friends for decades. They helped each other with engines and projects. They shared the sort of unspoken mutual respect that quiet, independent, hard-working, resourceful Southern men have for one another.

Mr. Bill knew that just through the woods, his friend Dewey was in the fight of his own life. They both passed away within a few months of one another. Maybe he never said it in these exact words, but Mr. Bill loved his friend Dewey. And during those long quiet hours while the rest of the world rested, Mr. Bill would lie awake, fighting his own pain, facing his own mortality, and praying unceasingly for his friend Dewey.

Rev. Larry Moore ministered to the Hardin family as their hospice chaplain. During the funeral service, Rev. Moore compared Mr. Bill to the biblical Joseph, a man who suffered so greatly, and yet without bitterness. And not just that; he was still looking out for others even while enduring his own crisis.

Mr. Bill was one of the most faithful and brave men I’ve ever personally known. From visit to visit, I could see his physical condition declining. In the final months as he lost the ability to speak… I did more talking than he did. I would read some Psalms to him, and it seemed to calm him. In one of our last, good long talks, we spoke a lot about heaven, about hope, and about peace. He longed for his situation to change. We all did. We all prayed that things would be different, but they weren’t. God never promised us that our lives would be easy, that we would be free from pain, or that we would be miraculously delivered from cruel conditions like C.B.D. God has promised that we would never be alone, no matter how long the nights are.

Christ did not conquer death in order to redeem our physical bodies. He died to conquer death and redeem our souls, so that what make us really us can live forever.

In 1642, an English poet wrote a poem to his love, from prison:

Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Liberty.

Mr. Bill was imprisoned by a body that had turned against itself. And yet still he was free. During those long sleepless nights, he would lie awake… rebuilding carburetors from the inside out, and restoring tractors from the ground up. And he would pray for his friend just down the way.

Everybody struggles with something. No matter how strong we appear, we all have some battle that keeps us up and causes us pain. We didn’t choose it, and we can’t lose it.

It’s not the battle itself that defines us; it’s how we fight.

On Pastoring

This morning, like most mornings, I stopped at the corner store to get some caffeine on my way to the office. The clerk was on the top step of a step ladder, with her back to me, stocking cigarettes. I put my drink on the counter, showed her the money, and offered to just leave it on the counter so she could ring it up at her convenience. Since I probably purchase the same item 200 times year, I have the total amount down to the penny.

“I’ve seen you ring me up enough times. I could probably hop behind the counter and ring it up myself. But you guys probably don’t want to get that started here,” I joked to her. I heard a laugh from the storage room, where her coworker was working on the books. Everybody likes it when people laugh at their jokes.

The clerk laughed and replied, “Seeing as how you’re a pastor, I think that’d be fine!”

For some reason it hit me. If I ever need a reminder that I’m in the Bible Belt, I never have to wait long for it. I know she was half-joking, but there is some truth to it: “You’re a preacher. It’s a small town in the south. Help yourself to the cash register.”

I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Local churches (including ours) will host the hometown football team for a pregame meal every Friday afternoon before home games. Almost every social media post originating from my zip code in the past 24 hours has been supportive of the court clerk in Kentucky who went to jail rather than granting same sex marriage licenses.

I was instantly reminded of something that a church-planter friend of mine had posted just 18 hours before. He’s not so much in the Bible Belt. To be correct, his city technically is in the Bible Belt, but it’s an outpost of modernity, higher education and skepticism, in a region that’s not generally known for those things.

Here’s what my church-planting friend said: “It’s hard to put into reports how often people see me reading my bible and then start loud conversations about how Christians are bigots because they oppose gay marriage.”

If I carry a bible into our local coffee shop on the court house square, I’m likely to have someone offer to buy my lunch, not argue with me. Every week is a home game for me. I’m on familiar ground. I grew up here. I know this place and these people. I love this place and these people. And I realize I’ve got it comparatively easy here.

This week I was doing some background on Thessalonians for our Wednesday night bible study at our church. I was reading John MacArthur’s notes from 2011 as he thanked his church for being a blessing to him like the Thessalonians had been to the apostle Paul:

“God also knew the limits of my weakness. And He knew that He had to put me in a church that was just well-nigh perfect, where I would be loved and supported and encouraged and prayed for and cared for and listened to so that it could continue. There are plenty of churches, you must know this, where if I tried to go there and teach through one book, they’d throw me out, let alone the whole New Testament.

The Lord also knew the limitations of my tolerances and knew that perhaps I couldn’t handle some of the things that others are asked to handle, or I might have lost my focus or left. It doesn’t run in the genes in our family. I think my Dad pastored twelve churches. And when something went wrong, he would feel he needed to go to another place.”

I was struck by MacArthur’s humility. He has led a thriving church for 46 years now. He’s preached through the entire New Testament more than once, and produced a set of commentaries that will be his legacy. And now, nearing the end of his ministry, MacArthur thanks God for giving him an easy, supportive congregation to pastor. Because he might not have been able to handle a tougher flock. That’s humility on high parade.

To my brothers in the Bible Belt: No, not everybody agrees with you. No, people don’t come to church because they’re supposed to. Why not? Because it’s not the 1950’s anymore. We can mourn that, or we can thank God that it’s not the 1950’s anymore. It may have been the glory days of evangelicalism in America… but the Russians were threatening to annihilate us, and African American kids couldn’t go to school with white kids. I didn’t live back then, but I’m not sad those days are gone. Let’s stop whining about how hard we have it, just because we’re going to be in the religious/cultural minority before long. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Unmerited suffering is redemptive.” Let’s stand up and take it like men.

To my brothers out in the trenches on the front lines: I love you guys. Maybe I’ll be there with you someday, playing on the road every week. Until then, I’m not questioning your motives and your methods. You’re in a hostile environment, and church is going to look different there. I celebrate you and your work. Keep your chins up. Go get it.

A Book, a Baby and the Burden of Grief 

When she was born in Connecticut in 1811, her father was a brilliant, outspoken pastor who struggled to make ends meet. By 1833, her father had become the president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, and she moved to Ohio with her family.

That same year, a cholera epidemic struck their city. She sought refuge from the outbreak with family friends in nearby Washington, Kentucky. It was her first visit to a slave state. Her own town had seen its share of racial troubles, sparked by mobs of Irish immigrants who sought to force free blacks to leave the city. 

But this trip into Kentucky was her first personal glimpse of the full reality of slavery on its home turf. While she was there, she attended a slave auction. She was shaken to her core at the manner in which slave families were ripped apart forever.

Back in Cincinnati, she soon married Calvin, a professor at her father’s seminary. She later described him as being “rich in Greek & Hebrew, Latin & Arabic, & alas! Rich in nothing else.” 

Her new husband was ardently opposed to slavery, and the couple soon opened their home to runaway slaves as a stop on the Underground Railroad. After several years of married life in Ohio, her husband Calvin accepted a position at his alma mater, and the family moved to Brunswick, Maine.

Not long after their arrival in Maine, a runaway slave arrived at their home. The recently passed Fugitive Slave Law carried stiff penalties even for northern families that harbored runaway slaves. She and her family defied the law. They sheltered the runaway, assisting him in his flight to freedom in Canada.

She had already been a published author for years; she had won her first writing acclaim at the age of seven, winning an essay contest at school. She had published a number of newspaper articles. She had written children’s books, and books on homemaking. If those accomplishments seemed quaint, her next publication would rock the entire nation.

“My heart breaks for the cruelty and injustice our nation inflicts upon the slaves. I am tormented by the thought of the slave mothers whose babes are torn from them. I pray to God to let me do a little to cause my cry for them to be heard.”

She did more than a little. “She” was Harriet Beecher Stowe, and on March 20, 1852 her publisher released Uncle Tom’s Cabin. According to PBS, it sold 10,000 copies the first week; 50,000 in first two months. The printers ran three paper mills to supply three printing presses, which ran 24 hours a day. They still couldn’t keep up with the demand. It was adapted into a popular stage play. Its stunningly realistic portrayal of slavery shook America’s collective conscience.

Ten years later, during the Civil War, Harriet was invited to the White House to meet President Lincoln. Her son remembered that Lincoln greeted Harriet with, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” It would be hard to overestimate the importance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in prewar America.

Maybe you already knew most of that. Here’s what you may not have already known:

Back in the summer of 1849, the year before Harriet and her family moved to Maine, Cincinnati was struck by another cholera outbreak, which claimed the life of her 18-month-old son Samuel Charles.

Remembering those slave mothers crying for their lost children, Harriet worked out her own grief by writing. Out of her grief came what is arguably the most influential American novel ever written. Uncle Tom’s Cabin flowed from the confluence of several streams:

Harriet was moved by the suffering of others. She saw individuals living under the awfulness of slavery, but she didn’t just see it – she felt it. Even before she had children of her own, she saw mothers whose children were ripped away from them. She saw slaves not as property or lesser people, but as individuals who were fundamentally identical to her.

Harriet saw her own suffering mirrored in the lives of others. Cholera took her son when he was not yet two years old. She saw her own acute grief mirrored in grief of mothers in the slave auction houses. Cholera separated her from her beloved son; slavery separated mothers from their children every day across the south.

Harriet did not just feel – she acted. From her youth, she was a manifestly gifted writer. She brought the full power of her pen to bear on what she perceived to be the great moral struggle of her day.

Through her own soul-wrenching grief, she brought forth society-changing literature. 

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. When we apply that to a tragedy, here’s what we may accidentally be doing: we take a person who’s struggling to recover from an excruciating loss, and we then saddle them with the responsibility of not only finding their way forward after the tragedy, but also with the unnecessary burden of now doing something amazing, transcendent and altruistic.

For the most part, well intentioned, amateur grief counselors would be better off sharing less advice and more casseroles. 

You’re not Harriet. Your grief doesn’t necessarily place upon you the added burden of undertaking great crusade. I don’t believe God orchestrates concussive blows of loss in your life in order to benefit the greater good. I don’t believe that God took young Samuel Charles Stowe from Harriet in order to ultimately bring about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Harriet may have felt that the loss of her son was divinely ordained to change the course of American history. Even if she did feel that way, it wouldn’t give me the right to preach it as absolute truth.

Harriet’s losing of her son compelled her to change the nation. Maybe your loss propels you to aspire to lead a movement. Maybe in the wake of your tragedy, simply getting out of bed is a triumph. Maybe your pain equips you to comfort others who are suffering similarly. It is redemptive. 

Harriet lived in a society in which people devalued one another and refused to acknowledge they were all created in the image of God. It bothered her. She did something about it.

I will never believe that God is the author of evil and suffering. I do believe that God can bring good from the awful. I believe, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, that Christ laid down the principle that unmerited suffering is redemptive. And I believe that our suffering can be used for the greater good, regardless of whether that good ultimately changes an entire society, or helps a solitary person who will later walk in our shoes.  

The Duggar Bombshell

Allegations broke today that Josh Duggar sexually assaulted several of his female siblings when he was a teenager. The link to the story is below. Only moments ago, Josh acknowledged his wrongdoing and has resigned from  this position with the Family Research Council. Here are a few thoughts:

1) My heart breaks for the victims. Their innocence was taken, and by a person they should have been able to trust. It is heart wrenching. May the God of all peace grant them peace.

2) As sad as it is, this situation is not statistically surprising. According to the Darkness to Light organization, about 90% of child victims know their abuser; only 10% of abusers are strangers to their victims. On the whole, approximately 30% of abusers are family of their victims. The younger the victim, the more likely that the abuser is a relative. For victims under age six, the rate rises to 50%.

3) If I don’t let my daughters come to a sleepover at your house, it’s not personal. Your feelings are infinitely less important to me than the innocence of my daughters. I’m unapologetically protective.

4) You better talk to your kids, so your kids know they can talk to you. Maintain a relationship with your kids so they know they can trust you. If you yell at your children when they spill milk, they’re not likely to open up to you when a predator molests them and tells them to keep it a secret.

5) The Duggar’s strict external rules didn’t stop depravity from striking in their own home. They didn’t have cable. They make their daughters dress modestly. They had a family code word (“Nike”) that signaled the boys to look down whenever an immodestly dressed girl would walk by. Duggar kids aren’t allowed to date (in the generally accepted usage of the term), or kiss before marriage. That’s their family ethos, and it’s fine. The problem is that fallenness found them anyway. Sin can thrive even under the apparent protection of modern-day Puritanism. Our world is broken. God help us.

6) Initial reports implied that when Jim Bob and Michelle learned of the multiple incidents of molestation, they sent their son, the alleged perpetrator, away to spend time with a mentor out of town. Whatever guidance the mentor may have offered, the young man needed professional help. The teenage perpetrator AND his victims desperately needed professional counseling, and probably still do. Josh’s statement this afternoon indicates that the family did in fact secure counseling for both Josh and his victims.

7) I’m not saying this is what the Duggar family did, but please get this: do not sacrifice your child’s wholeness on the altar of your own public image. It could have cost the Duggar family their television show to get professional help for those poor girls, and for their son who victimized them. No family would want a tragedy like that to go public. But when fallenness invades your home, sacrifice whatever it takes to help the victims heal.


Have a blessed day…

photo(16)Have a Blessed Day…

It occurred to me that the content of this blog thus far has not lived up to its title, in that I’ve not yet posted a single thing I’ve overheard at EZ Mart. We shall remedy that now.

I’m in convenience stores a lot, for two reasons: First, my job has me on the road a good bit. Secondly, I love caffeine in all of its glorious forms. When I’m at home and have time, I make regular use of my Cuisinart espresso machine. I will probably write a future post extolling its many stainless steel and LED virtues. But when I’m on the road or in a hurry, I have to rely on convenient stores.

I live in a small town, and we have four convenience stores. Each one has a different clientele. TJ’s was a gleaming flagship wonderland of a convenient store when it opened back in the 1990’s. It was a game changer: a four-bay car wash, fro-yo machines and plate lunches. The Greatest Generation guys settled on TJ’s as the coffee shop. I’ not sure you can win an election in De Queen without a stump visit to the TJ’s coffee crowd. On any school morning, you’ll see a steady stream of teachers, students and coaches filing in for breakfast to start their days. I always buy my gas there (unadulterated, ethanol-free).

But when it’s time for caffeine or a snack, I go to the EZ Mart across the intersection. I love the Ninth Street EZ Mart. The average transaction at the De Queen Ninth Street EZ Mart includes the following: a pack of off-brand cigarettes, a Monster energy drink, a 20 oz. Mountain Dew for the preschool kid waiting patiently in the car, two scratch-off lottery tickets… and $3.00 in gas.

You see some (and hear) some stuff in the Ninth Street EZ Mart. It’s a cross section of society. It’s not uncommon to see kids with no shoes, or grownups wearing pajama pants in the middle of the day. You wouldn’t expect to see the same scene 100 yards across the intersection at TJ’s. A neck tattoo is not necessarily required at the Ninth Street EZ Mart, but I would certainly have more cred if I had one. Many of the regulars are probably ten years younger than they actually look.

A delicate flower of a person would probably not fare too well working the register there. It’s a 24 hour establishment. It’s not uncommon to roll in and walk past a clerk who has stepped outside for a smoke. She’ll lay her still-burning cigarette on the window ledge and follow me in the store. She’ll ring me up, then follow me back outside to finish her smoke. The Ninth Street EZ Mart is real.

To a person, all the clerks are friendly in their own ways. And they’re friendly to everybody. It’s probably the most diverse selection of individuals you’ll see in town. I see people in that store that I never see anywhere else. These are people who you don’t even see in WalMart. And the clerks are universally nice to each and every last one of them.

But there’s one clerk in particular who stands out. I’ve gotten to know her fairly well over the last couple years. She ends every transaction with “Have a blessed day.” Not just a good day, but a blessed day. I realize it’s a little thing. But it’s really not a little thing.

I don’t know her last name. I do know where she goes to church, because after about the fourth time she told me to “have a blessed day,” I asked her. At first I thought maybe she was saying that to me because she knew that I’m a pastor. I’m a public figure in a small town; I don’t know everybody who knows me. But it’s not just me. She ends every transaction that way. Whether she’s selling a Diet Coke to the preacher, or whether she’s selling cigarettes and lottery tickets to the guy with prison ink on his face. She sends every customer on their way… happily and consistently dispensing beef jerky, lottery tickets and the blessings of God.

I’m pretty sure there are plenty of Christians who wouldn’t work a job where they had to sell lottery tickets or cigarettes, and that’s okay.

Unfortunately, in most of our towns, there are a lot of people who feel plenty comfortable in EZ Mart but don’t feel at all comfortable in church. That bothers me.

Maybe if Christians in church were as consistently welcoming as convenience store clerks, we would make better inroads across socio-economic barriers.

I suspect that she views that convenience store counter as her mission field. And it’s okay for me to say this, because I am a preacher, but she’s not “preachy” when she says it.

Every day, she has hundreds of interactions with people from every race, background and social situation possible. Her words might be the only light of blessedness that shines in the lives of her customers on any given day. It’s her mission field, and she’s doing a great job there. I think we can all probably do a better job of spreading blessedness into the world around us, no matter where our field happens to be. So, in case nobody has said it to you lately, I hope you have a blessed day.

The Good Samaritan

Disclaimer: If your take away from this piece is that I’m a great guy (or that I want you to think I am), then I need to rewrite it, or you need to re-read it.

In Luke 10, Jesus tells the parable of the “good” Samaritan. If I were speaking right now instead of writing, I would use air quotes when saying the word “good.” I love air quotes. To the original audience, there really was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan. Many Jews of that day viewed Samaritans as racially mixed, theologically deficient and generally undesirable. In short, a Samaritan was a very unlikely hero to a parable. Jesus liked to throw curve balls.

The parable only has a few characters. First there is the victim, who is mugged and left for dead by robbers. As the victim lies there naked, beaten and clinging to life, a priest, and then a Levite pass him by. Both of them react similarly: they look at the victim and actually exert energy to bypass him. Both of them notice; both of them ignore.

Priests were a subset of the Levites. All priests had to be Levites, but all Levites were not necessarily priests. They would have been concerned with their ceremonial duties… and ceremonial cleanliness. Something about this poor victim’s plight dissuaded the religious leaders from stopping. Maybe they had more pressing duties at the Temple. Stopping to help this solitary victim would have gotten in the way of their “real” religious service, either because of priority (it would make them late) or purity (it would make them defiled).

In the eyes of many, these first two guys could legitimately claim a ministerial exemption for not stopping to help. Forget this individual roadside assistance stuff. They weren’t paramedics for individuals. Priests and Levites brokered the relationship between God and the entire nation. They were big time. They did their work in temples filled with worshipers and ceremonies. They didn’t work with mugging victims on dusty country roads.

You know the rest of the story. After the two religious guys pass right by, a Samaritan stops. He shows compassion. The Samaritan loaded the victim in his personal vehicle. Got him medical care and put him up in a hotel. It cost the Samaritan his time and a couple hundred dollars. Can you put a price on a life? In this case, you can: two days’ wages.

Yesterday I was heading to my friend’s cabin to grill some steaks and watch the NCAA tournament. I was running at least an hour late. I had to run extra errands. I forgot something and had to go back to the house. When I finally had my stuff together and was about to leave town, I noticed that I had just enough gas to get to the cabin but not back home. I was going to have to stop… again.

As I pulled into the gas station, I saw a lady struggling to walk up a long steep hill. She was neither old nor young. She was wearing a fast food uniform and carrying two overloaded shopping bags. She appeared to be in pain from a bad knee, or maybe a hip. The sky was gray and spitting rain.

I instantly felt compassion for her, but I bargained with myself. You know the bargain you make with yourself: “If she’s still there when I’m done getting gas, I’ll go back and offer her a ride.” [But I secretly hoped that she was already home by then, because I was an hour late to grill a steak and watch kids born in the 1990s put a ball in a hoop.]

When I was done fueling up, she was still struggling up the hill as the rain intensified. I headed back toward her and rolled down my window. As an aside, whenever I offer somebody a ride, I want to try and assure them that I am, in fact, not an axe murderer. So as soon as possible I lead with, “My name’s Jason. I’m the pastor at the Baptist church over by the city park.”

When I said that, her response was instant and adamant. “Oh I know.”

I didn’t recall having met her before. She didn’t look familiar. But I’m a public figure in a small town. Sometimes people know me and I don’t know them. But that’s not how she meant it. She explained it…

“I got off work and walked to the store. Then it started raining. And I waited in there for a long time, hoping somebody I knew would come in and give me a ride. The rain was picking up so I figured I better just start walking. This is a big hill and I’ve got a long way to go to my apartment. Ever since I left the store I was praying that God would send somebody to help me home. I’ve got bad knees. So I know why you came back for me. I prayed, and God sent you.”

Those who know me best will tell you that I’m cynical. That’s a nice way to put it. I can be a real jerk, but I’m working on that. I’m far from superstitious, religiously or otherwise. But her earnestness broke me.

It broke me because I almost didn’t go back to offer her a ride because I was in a hurry to go eat a steak. It broke me because I realized that more often than not, I’m more like the first two guys in the parable… I’m the religious professional who’s too busy claiming a religious exemption to stop and help.

I played piano during worship this morning, and then I preached. Then I played guitar for another worship session, and wrapped up my day by delivering a devotional. But I’m pretty sure that when it’s all said and done, the most Christ-like thing I did this weekend was to give that lady a ride home.

So while you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing after you read this, say a prayer for her. God knows her name. She shared her story with me asked for me to pray for her. Life has been a struggle for her lately. It sounds like her life stinks. But she’s strong. She’s resilient. She’s working. She’s walking. And she’s trusting God to help her. And I almost didn’t listen. I need to listen more.

God open our eyes. Help us to slow down, to turn around, to go back. God help us to be better Samaritans.

On Funerals…

Photo Credit: CNBC

Photo Credit: CNBC

It’s been the better part of a decade since I returned to my home town to pastor the church in which I grew up. I could write a separate post about the intricacies of ministering in one’s home town (or following one’s father in a pastorate), but we’ll save those for another time. One of the great things about serving for years in a relatively small town is the opportunity to become a “community pastor” and minister to people who are not part of our particular congregation. There was a time when I fled from that role. Now I embrace it.

One of the functions of being a community pastor is officiating funerals, and I’m often called to do services for people I never had the privilege of meeting. This can happen in several ways. Maybe the deceased was a local resident who did not attend church. Maybe the deceased grew up here but had lived elsewhere for many years. Maybe they were members of another congregation which happens to be without a pastor at the moment. Regardless of the situation, ministers sometimes find themselves called upon to officiate funerals for people they did not know.

Here are some humbly-offered suggestions from my experiences (much of this applies to all funerals):

1) Tell the crowd why you’re standing there. Ministers, repeat after me: this funeral is not about you. However, people might want to know why you’re officiating the service. Briefly explain your relationship to the deceased. If you were the deceased’s pastor for the last 40 years and went fishing with them every Monday, then tell the crowd that. If you never met the deceased, and you’re there because the funeral home called upon you to minister to a grieving family in their time of need, then tell the crowd that. You gain no credibility with the crowd by acting like you were best buddies if you never met the deceased. If all your information about the deceased is second hand, then cite your sources. It’s okay that you didn’t know the deceased; it’s not okay to pretend like you did.

2) Do your homework. This one should be a no-brainer: know how to pronounce everything in the obituary. One sure way to look incompetent while officiating a funeral service is to mispronounce something in the obituary. It’s hard to appear competent and caring if you don’t pronounce the family’s names correctly. I typically re-write the obituary for my own notes, and I spell out any questionable names or locations phonetically. When I used to broadcast basketball games for our local radio station, I would always tell coaches: “I don’t need to know how to spell your player’s names. I want to know how to say their names.” If there’s even the slightest question, ask the family or funeral director for clarification. One of the best (and funniest) pieces of advice I ever received was from a community pastor who had performed hundreds of funerals: “Son, if you get to a name you can’t pronounce, just cough and keep on going.” Absent that, do your homework.

3) Personalize the service. I’ve attended funerals where I heard more about the pastor than I heard about the deceased. Over your ministerial career, you’re going to preach dozens if not hundreds of funerals; the departed only has one. So make it about them. Every situation is different, because all families are different. In reality, there might not be very much positive information to share. You might personally know 90 minutes of great material about a person. Share the best of that. A family might only be able to give you six minutes of good material about a person – share all of that. Share what good things you can. Our English word eulogy derives from the Greek words eu (good, correct) logia (words). It is to speak well of the deceased. Speak well of them, not yourself.

4) It’s a funeral, not a Sunday morning service. Before you stone me with offering plates, please hear me out: If you want to discourage people from choosing to come hear you preach at your church on a Sunday, then preach to them for 30 minutes at a funeral on a Tuesday when they don’t have a choice. It might be a funeral in a church, but it’s not church. I know, I know… “It might be the only time that they hear the gospel.” That’s true. And if you arrogantly treat funeral goers like a captive audience, you’re doing your part to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. An important exception is when the family specifically requests that I preach more than I eulogize. In that case, I defer to the family’s wishes, and I communicate to the crowd that the family asked me to preach more than funeralize (yes I made that word up). Another time in which I spend more time on theology than biography is in the loss of a child. It is rare. It is gut-wrenching. There is not as much to share from a long life well-lived. A funeral is a funeral, not a filibuster. Before you accuse me of being a flaming secularist, of course the gospel has a central place in a funeral. We can preach for a lifetime and never exhaust the riches of God’s grace. You’re a gospel minister, not an architect or a butcher. There’s a reason why you’re going to be standing there – someone assumes that you are a professional theologian who can project the radiating comfort of God’s light into the valley of this present shadow of death. It is possible to concisely communicate God’s redemptive plan AND still have time to eulogize the deceased. If you can’t, then you need to work on your clock management.

5) Personally pre-grieve. I learned this one the hard way. I was on a church staff during my seminary years. One of our beloved older members passed away, and the family asked me to read his obituary before the senior pastor delivered the funeral message and eulogy. I had prepared for my relatively minor role in the service (see #2), but hadn’t given much actual thought to the fine man’s passing. As I stood before the assemblage of family and friends to read the obituary, my own grief overwhelmed me. I slobbered all over myself through the whole obituary. I finally regained my composure about the time I finished speaking. My pastor gently called me aside later and gave me some excellent advice: pastors have to pre-grieve alone, before the funeral. Grief is not a moment; it’s a process. Pastors grieve too. If you were especially close to the deceased, officiating the service can be terribly difficult. The more you can process your personal grief privately, the better position you’re in to minister publicly. This is the real life application of the biblical truth that we can comfort others with the comfort we have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:4). Your voice may still crack. You may still shed tears. It’s okay to be real, but if you haven’t pre-grieved, you haven’t prepared.

6) You don’t have to explain everything. Maybe this is my Gen-X self talking, but it’s possible for you to be long on comfort without being long on answers. This is especially true in the case of tragedies. It’s okay to say that you don’t know why things happen. Be very, very careful when attributing tragedies to the hand of God, even if you mean it as a statement of faith. What you intend as a statement of faith resonates very differently with people who don’t hold your same worldview. God can pick up the pieces of a broken situation without having to be the one who broke the situation in the first place. In the storms of life, avoid the theoretical. Point them to the light of life. Hold your personal theories close, and point them to the God of comfort and the God of all peace.

Certainly there are more ideas out there about how pastors can better navigate these difficult days, but I hope these help you.

A “Good” Funeral…

Photo Credit: Forbes

Photo Credit: Forbes

So I’ve been thinking about funerals a lot lately. It’s a big part of my job. Rarely a month goes by that I’m not either attending or officiating at least one funeral service. I’m working on a longer post that I’ll share a little later, but for now I wanted to share this.

In September 2012, PBS aired the documentary “Death and the Civil War” as part of its American Experience series. If you’re so inclined, you can watch the entire episode here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/death/player/

The episode articulated well the horror of the American Civil War. It wasn’t just the unprecedented mortality rates, but the very nature of those deaths that was so traumatic. Americans of the mid-19th century were accustomed to dying peacefully, at home, surrounded by loved ones. The Civil War radically altered that.

Poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch spoke about the essentials for a “good” funeral. In other words, what constitutes a fitting goodbye to a loved one? Below is a paraphrase of his thoughts on the subject. And even though he spoke about funerals in the context of Victorian Era America, the basic principles still resonate today.

First and foremost, a “good” funeral needs a corpse. During the Civil War and in countless individual tragedies since, families have had to say goodbye to their loved one without the presence of their loved one’s body. A “good” funeral includes the loved one’s remains, giving the family closure.

A “good” funeral needs mourners, so that the body can be laid to rest with the dignity befitting human life. Friends and family gather to show their support for the family in their time of grief. The presence of mourners signals that the deceased was appreciated during their time on earth.

A “good” funeral needs an officiant with a sacred text. In Lynch’s words, “there needs to be somebody to broker the change relationship between living and dead, and the peace between them. There needs to be somebody to stand and say ‘Behold I show you a mystery…’”

The sacred text leads to transport, which is the final necessity of a “good” funeral. Transport is, “what gets the deceased home again… to the tomb, to the ground, to the pyre or across the waters to the far shore. We’ve been doing it forever. The fashions change, but the essentials never do.” The final act of transport is typically at the graveside, where the loved ones say their final goodbyes.

Ministers have a vitally important role in providing a “good” funeral. My next post will go into further detail about how ministers can more skillfully guide the family through the process of a “good” funeral.

Language Research!

College Park, Maryland, December 16, 2014

Today the U.S. Center for Linguistic Statistics released the results of a longitudinal study of exclamation point usage among Americans. The statistics shed light on what many have long suspected, but have never objectively researched: some Americans disproportionately use the exclamation point.

A team of language experts participated in a far reaching, seven-year study of social media posts from Americans across various demographic groups. They worked from anecdotal evidence that some Americans used exclamation points extensively, while others rarely used them at all.

“I used an exclamation point this one time on Facebook,” says Jerry, age 41, from Alpharetta, Georgia. “I was barefoot in the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. A can of them Grands biscuits fell right on my big toe. I thought I was gonna die. So yeah, when I posted the picture of my big blue toenail, I figured it was okay to use an exclamation point in the caption. And like Dick Cheney said about waterboarding, I’d do it again in a minute.”

Contrast that with Julie, 35, from West Little Rock, Arkansas. Exclamation points are a way of life for Julie, and not just after excruciating biscuit accidents. “I use them all the time! They work for Pinterest shares, slow cooker recipes, family game night, and date night. Especially date night!”

The numbers are striking. America’s exclamation point usage is even more concentrated than America’s wealth – the richest 5% of Americans hold 62% of the wealth. By contrast, the most exclamatory 5% of America is responsible for a full 80% of exclamation point usage.

So exactly who is using all the exclamation points? The median exclamation point user is a 34 year old white female who lives with her husband and three children. On average she holds a bachelor’s degree, has seen every Nicholas Sparks movie and drives a sensible vehicle. Further research is ongoing, and initial results show a strong positive correlation with the behaviors of the now ubiquitous “basic white girl.”

But you need not worry. The Center for Linguistic Statistics says that we are not in danger of running out of exclamation points anytime soon: “While this might seem like a crisis, exclamation points are a completely renewable resource! If you want more, you just make more!”

Editorial Note: Also due ANY DAY is the center’s GROUNDBREAKING research on electronic shouting, and who’s responsible for it.