Does the Thought Really Count?

Brut33James 1:22-25 NRSV

I know it is way too early to mention Christmas in a sermon. However, the following is the best sermon illustration that I could come up for this morning’s scripture lesson.

Every Christmas, when my whole family gathered at the home of my grandparents for Christmas dinner, and more importantly, for presents, my brother, sister and I could always count on getting some cool presents. For just about everyone to give us some kind of special toy that we could play with for hours at a time.

However, we always could count on this particular relative to give us something that we could never play with, something like a pair of socks, a pair of gloves, or a set of handkerchiefs. When I was in the first grade, I remember getting what every six-year-old boy wanted: a bottle of Jovan Musk for Men. The next year, I got every seven-year-old’s favorite gift: a box set of Brut 33 Cologne and Deodorant. And the next year, I got every eight year-old’s dream-come-true: Some Soap on a Rope.

And every year, I remember always opening my present from this one particular relative, smiling and saying: “Thank you. This is exactly what I wanted.” Because Mama and Daddy would always pull us children aside every Christmas and tell us to always remember that it is not the present you get, but it is the thought that counts.

To this day I have never really fully understood that philosophy. What did my parents mean that “it was the thought that counted?” I could not play with my relative’s thoughts. Besides, you have to wonder: soap on a rope for eight-year-old? What were they thinking?

“It is the thought that counts.” It is a common phrase, because often times, although we may not like it and may not fully understand it, we know it to be true. It is true at Christmas time, on birthdays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but it is also true in other areas of life.

Sometimes in life the thought counts, because the thought is all that we have to offer. Sometimes we encounter situations where there is nothing that anyone can actually do, and the only thing that anyone can say is: “I am thinking about you.”

One of the most difficult things to do is to try to buy a card for someone who has a terminal illness. I remember trying to find a card for my grandparents during the last days of their lives. Most all of the cards read: “Hope You Feel Better” or “Get Well Soon.” And that’s not always appropriate. The only cards I found which best met my grandparents’ needs were cards which simply read: “I’m thinking of you” or “You are in my thoughts.”

There are some situations in life when the only thing we have to offer, and the very best thing we can offer, is our thoughts. Sometimes the greatest gift in the world can be those beautiful, empathetic, and comforting words, “I’m thinking about you.” Sometimes, the thought really does count.

Empathy is certainly one thing that is needed in this world. How much better would this world be if more of us thought before we spoke, before we acted? How much better would this world be if more of us tried to put ourselves in the shoes of another? There would certainly be much less hate in this world, much less bigotry, prejudice and stupidity.

I can remember many times in my life when I would have much rather received someone’s thoughts instead of the gifts they tried to give me. When sorrow and grief came my way, good-hearted people, I am certain without thinking, offered painful and insensitive antidotes like: “Well, the Lord knows best.” “You are just not ready to be a father.” “God doesn’t make mistakes.” “It’s God’s will, and we can’t question God.” Why couldn’t they just say: “I’m thinking about you,” and nothing else. Sometimes, not only does the thought count, the thought is the only thing that counts.

However, we must also understand that sometimes in life, the thought does not count. Sometimes, thoughts mean very little, and sometimes the thoughts mean nothing at all.

The apostle James, throughout his letter, makes this very clear. “Be doers of the word and not just hearers; otherwise, it is like looking in a mirror and immediately forgetting what you look like.” In other words, the look didn’t count. And in the next chapter he writes:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

James is saying that sometimes the thought, no matter how good that thought might be, simply does not count. Sometimes good thoughts must be coupled with good deeds. Faith must be coupled with works. James says that if a person is hungry, all of the good thoughts in the world are not going to fill him up. Only food will do that. Thoughts are nice, but thoughts cannot keep a person warm. Only clothes will do that.

In Second Timothy, we can find a great example where thoughts are of little help. Paul writes to Timothy:

Do your best to come to me soon . . . and when you come, bring the cloak that I left at Troas, and also the books, and above all, the parchments . . . Do your best to come before winter.

It is obvious that what Paul does not need here are some thoughts. Paul appears to be lonely and would like some company. Paul is cold and needs a sweater, especially before winter. Paul appears to be bored and needs a book. Imagine if Timothy would have written Paul back and said, “Dear Paul, I cannot come and bring your sweater, and I cannot come and bring your books, but please know that I am thinking about you.”

You know, one of the greatest things about First Christian Church is that we have a lot of good thinkers. We have critical thinkers, philosophers, if you will, but we also have some very empathetic thinkers. Our church is full of compassionate thoughts. When the thoughts counted for some of you in the hospital, in the nursing home or in the funeral home, you always knew that there were people who were sincerely and lovingly thinking about you. And it counted for a lot.

However, there are just as many instances in the church where our thoughts simply do not count.

When Carolyn Joyner suffered a stroke six weeks ago, the most compassionate, most empathetic thoughts in the world were not going to build her the handicap ramp she needed. Hammer, nails, lumber, and people who were willing to give up a beautiful Saturday morning were needed to do that.

Since I have been your pastor, we have been thinking, at least I have been trying to get us to think, about how wonderful it would be if every member of this church volunteered to serve on some ministry team. We have thought about the tremendous impact we could have on eastern NC, our region, and our world, if every one of us were using his or her Spirit-given gifts for ministry. Thinking about it though, will not impact a thing.

If this church is ever going to become the church that God wants her to become, we must be willing to move beyond our thoughts to work hard and sacrifice much. Each of us must be willing to give of ourselves, of our tithes, but also of our time and our talents.

There are a couple of families in our church who have not worshipped with us for some time. I have missed them. And I know you have missed them. However, missing them, thinking about them, no matter how sincere our thoughts may be, will not let them know that they are missed. They need a phone call. They need a card sent to them, not thoughts kept to ourselves.

Sometimes thoughts do count. Sometimes saying, “I’m thinking about you,” is all we can offer, and it is all we should offer. Sometimes those simple, beautiful words can make all the difference in the world. However, as James and Paul teach us, sometimes in life the thought simply does not count.

Jesus constantly said that our thoughts should be put into action. Jesus said that if we truly loved him, we would do more than just think about him with sentimental affection. Jesus said that if we loved him, we would keep his commandments.

Sometimes I do believe that it is appropriate to think about Jesus. Part of our worship should be spending time in meditation reflecting on Christ’s love for us. How he loved us so much that he suffered for us. Those are things that we should think about. But I have to believe that if that is all that we do, then those thoughts simply do not count. They are like looking in a mirror and, a minute later, forgetting what we saw.

During our worship, when we reflect on the suffering of our Lord, when we hold the broken bread and the cup, those thoughts should always stir us, move us and mobilize us to go out and suffer alongside someone who is suffering. Thinking about our Lord should compel us to visit the nursing homes, the funeral homes, the hospitals and the prisons. Thinking about Jesus’ suffering should propel us serve on a ministry team, to be more committed than ever to truly be a movement for wholeness in this fragmented world.

A movement. Not a team of thinkers.

A movement. Not philosophy class.

A movement. Not a club of theorists.

A movement. Not a group of day dreamers.

A movement. Not a church of well-wishers.

A movement, a body of doers, doing all that we can, when we can, with all that we have been given,

working for wholeness in a creation that is broken,

working for justice in systems of inequality,

working for mercy and grace in a society of bigotry and prejudice,

working for peace in a culture of war and violence,

working for truth in a nation of politics,

working for love in a world of hate,

working for hope in a world of despair.

Now, may God give us the wisdom and the courage to do more than to just think about this sermon.

Get a Life: Six Things the Church Must Get to Live

get a lifeThe Christian faith is essentially about new life. Christ is about renewing, reviving and resurrecting life.

This is why it is so troubling that many churches are dying today, and why it is even more troubling that many more churches, in spite of their buildings, budget and attendance, as far as the world is concerned, are essentially dead.

Here are six things that I believe the church must get in order to get a life:

Get Together

The Christian faith is about coming together as a community. The first thing Jesus did to give birth to the Kingdom was to call together a community of disciples to share the good news of God’s love with others. The Christian faith is personal, but Jesus never intended it to be private. Faith should never be tucked away deep within the soul of an individual. Faith should always be worn in public, out on the sleeves of a community.

Get Down

The Christian faith is about selfless, sacrificial service. It is about God who came down through Jesus, who was laid down in a manger, who crouched down to forgive sinners, who stooped down to heal the sick, who knelt down to welcome children, who bowed down to wash another’s feet, and who bent down to take up his cross. For many, church is about getting uplifted. We need to make church about getting down.

Get Real

The Christian faith is about following someone who preached against the fake piety and hypocrisy of organized religion. In Jesus’ first sermon, he warned us about being judgmental of others who have specks in their eyes, while we have logs in our own eyes. And no one who hears the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery ever forgets Jesus’ words: “Let those without sin cast the first stone.” Therefore, no one in the church should ever act as if he or she is superior to anyone.

Get Serious

The Christian faith is about serious grace. With grace, Jesus always seemed to overdo it. 180 gallons of wine is a serious amount of wine for a small wedding party. The gift of the best robe, a ring, a fatted calf, loud music and dancing is a serious gift for a prodigal son. If the church is to ever have life again, the church must share this serious, extravagant grace with others, even while others accuse us of seriously overdoing it.

Get Up

The Christian faith is about prophetic justice. Jesus announced God’s new Kingdom by quoting the prophet Isaiah, saying that he had come “to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free.” The church must always be willing to get up and stand up for the liberty and justice for all, especially the poor, the disabled, and the marginalized.

Get Out

The Christian faith is about getting out into the world. Jesus was always out on the move, going out to the people. To be a church that is alive, the church needs to get out of the sanctuary and go to the places Jesus went, see the people Jesus saw, and do the things Jesus did.

Will there be folks in the world who will despise us for it? According to Jesus: most definitely; but at least the world will know that we are alive.

Dress Code


Ephesians 6:10-20 NRSV

A few years ago, I talked with my sister who teaches in a public school in Winston-Salem. She shared with me how her school went through a radical transformation under the leadership of new principal. She said that discipline problems decreased, attendance increased, and grades improved. The entire school was transformed.

“What happened? What did this new principal do?” I asked.

“I would have to say that it is the uniforms,” she answered.

“The uniforms?” I asked.

“Yes, it was amazing. Overnight, students started acting like students. They actually started listening, behaving, learning. The kids love their uniforms!”

“Is that all there is to it?” I thought to myself, “Dress like a student, and bam, you’ll be a good student!?”

On the surface, our scripture lesson’s admonition to get all dressed up for Jesus sounds rather superficial. Is that all it involves?

Do you want to be a police officer like Kendra Howell? Then go out, get a police uniform, put it on, and, bam, you will be one!

Want to be a doctor like Doug Barrow? Then go out and get a long white jacket and a stethoscope, put it on, and, bam, you’ll be one!

Want to be a Christian? Then get up on Sunday morning, get dressed, attend a Sunday School class, participate in worship—read the responsive reading, bow your head and close your eyes during the prayers, open your hymnals and sing with the organ, eat the bread, drink from the cup, listen to the sermon, and bam, one day you’re a Christian!

That can’t be right. Can it?

Surely being a Christian is more than simply putting on “the whole armor of God?” But this is not the only place that Paul talks about getting dressed up for God. In Romans 13 we read Paul saying that we ought to “put on Christ.” In Galatians 3 we read Paul saying we should be “clothed with Christ.” Is that all there is to it?

John Wesley once said to his preachers, “Preach faith until you have it.” Wesley was inferring that maybe faith is something that we must first act like we have in order to have it.

Maybe we too often make the mistake in thinking that the Christian faith is only something that is deep within, on the inside. But maybe faith is also something that is without, on the outside.

Maybe we’ve been singing the wrong lyrics. We sing: “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy. Where? Down in my heart. Where? Down in my heart” When we should be singing: “out on my sleeve, out on my sleeve, to stay.”

As a pastor, the excuse I hear the most from people who do not attend church is that church folks are nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. Many of them say that the reason they do not identify with organized religion, is because the Christians they know do not seem to be following the Jesus they know.

Then I try to explain that the Christian faith is much more than external actions. It is also a matter of the heart, the mind, something that happens in the depths of the soul. Christians are not perfect. They are just forgiven, as the bumper sticker defends us.

But, you know something? Maybe these critics have a good point. Maybe the Christian faith is more external than it is internal: a set of practices, a way of life, and even some predictable motions that we go through on Sunday mornings, regardless of our inner disposition. Maybe what we feel, and understand, and even believe on the inside is not as important as what we do on the outside. Perhaps we have to sometimes act our way into believing, before we can believe. Perhaps we have to do faith, before we can have faith.

Now, please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that we have to earn salvation or God’s love. I believe in grace. I believe salvation is a gift that comes from God and not from our works. Thus, when I speak about doing faith to have faith, I am talking about our faith in God, our love for God, our service to God, not God’s faith in us or God’s love for us.

I think it is interesting that Jesus never says anywhere, anything remotely close to: “Close your eyes and think real deeply about me until you come to that self-awareness whereby you believe in me.”

At the end of his sermon on the mount, Jesus did not say, “hear these words, meditate on these words, study and believe in these words.” No, Jesus said, “Do these words.”

When a rich young ruler asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. He told a story about picking up a stranger who was beaten, robbed and left bleeding on the side of the road. He told a story about bandaging his wounds and paying for his healthcare. And then, what did Jesus say? “Believe in this story.” Have faith in this story.” No Jesus said: “Go and do likewise.” Go and do this story.

Jesus says, “Follow me.” Put one foot in front of the other. They don’t have to be big steps. And they don’t have to be perfect steps. Stumble after me. Crawl if you must. Do what you can to imitate me. Try to walk and live as I walk and live. Act like you are a disciple. Make believe that others, even strangers, are your brothers and your sisters. Act like you love them more than yourself. Always do unto others as you would have it done unto you. No matter how painful it may be, or how little sense it makes, give some of yourself away every day. Forgive as you have been forgiven. And eventually, by the grace of God, it will come to you.

The Apostle Paul never says, “Believe deep within your heart that Jesus is Lord and you will be saved.” Instead he says, “Profess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord.” “Go tell someone. Tell everyone. Show everyone. Act like you are a follower of Christ, and you will be saved.”

Therefore, when someone comes forward to profess Christ as Lord and to be baptized, perhaps I shouldn’t simply ask questions like, “Do you believe deep within your heart and do you understand with your mind that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God, your Lord, your savior?

Maybe I just ought to say, “You want to be a Christian? Then go out and tell somebody that you are a Christian. Show someone that the Jesus is your Lord. Invite at least one person to church next week. Give generously and sacrificially of your income through the church. Volunteer to serve on a ministry team. Join the choir. Make it a priority to attend Sunday School and worship. Visit someone who is sick. Do something for the poor. Take a stand for the marginalized. Put on Christ. Wear the shoes of Jesus every day of the week, not until you get Christ, but until Christ gets in you.”

When someone in trouble comes to me and says, “I just don’t know how God is going to get me through this. Deep down, I really don’t have the faith that I am going to be able to make it.”

Maybe I need to say: “Just act like you have it. Try to believe it. Even if your believing is weak, even if it is shallow, even if it is just pretend, pretend that you are going to make it. Crawl out of bed, get dressed, walk tall, keep your head up, act like you’re going to survive, and somehow, someway, you will. Because, before you know it, the Holy Spirit of God will be in you and living through you.

A very successful stockbroker once said, “For the first two years it was mostly play-acting,” he said. “I spent the first two years going to wok, wearing a suit, sitting behind a desk, acting like a stockbroker. I must have been good at the acting, because the other day, I just got a promotion. That’s when it occurred to me: I really am stockbroker.” Perhaps it’s the same way with being a Christian.

Somebody criticizes the church by saying, “Oh, those folks are just playing church.” But maybe to truly be the church, we have to first play church. To be the body of Christ in this world, we have to first act like his body. We have to go to the places that Jesus went. See the people Jesus saw. Do the things that Jesus did. Forgive as Jesus forgave. Love as Jesus loved. Give ourselves away as Jesus gave himself away.

Thus, Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus: Don’t go out in this world poorly dressed. If you want to play football, put on a helmet. If you are going to play softball, get a good glove. If you are going to be a runner, get the right shoes. And if you are going to be a disciple, put on Christ. Put on faith. Put on grace. Put on mercy, and put on justice. Dress up in love. Wear compassion. Don yourself with forgiveness. Clothe yourselves with good intentions. Adorn yourself with selflessness. Wrap the promises of God around you.

Worship, even if you are not in to it. Read the Bible, even if you don’t understand it. Take communion, even if you don’t want it. Sing the hymns, even when you don’t feel like it. Pray, even when you don’t believe in it. Give, even when you’d rather hold on to it. Listen to a sermon, even when you’d rather ignore it. Serve, even when you are tired of it. Make a commitment, even if you are afraid of it. Believe, even if you doubt it.

Then, having dressed for the faith, go out and share it, live it, do it, and be it. Put on the whole armor of God, and before you know it, by the grace of God, you will become that which you profess.[i]

[i] Thank you William Willimon for this sermon title, thoughts and interpretation of Ephesians 6:10-20. Pulpit Resource, Logos Productions, 2006.

Final Lessons from My Wheelchair (or Crutches)

man-in-crutchesTottering around on my crutches has been a royal pain. It has been a pain in my arms, shoulders, back, and in my good knee. It has also been a pain in my spirit.

However, what has gotten me through these painful six weeks, besides my wife (God bless her), was the hope that I would one day be able to walk, even run, again. My pain was not forever.

This is the great hope of our faith in God. No matter how weak or disabled we are, no matter how much pain we are in, even if we are suffering on the brink of death, we possess the hope that our weakness and pain is not forever. We have the hope that we will one day have the strength to walk, and to even run, without pain.

Consequently, there is nothing in all of creation, neither in life, nor in death, that we cannot get through. The hope of our faith will see us through anything. I love the way the prophet Isaiah speaks of this great hope:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint,

and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:28-31 NRSV).

Thanks be to God.

Drunk, Dancing Disturbers of the Peace


2 Samuel 6:-1-5, 12-19 NRSV

Ephesians 5:6-20 The Message

This passage from Ephesians is the story of my faith, or at least, I hope to make it the story of my faith. For there was a time that I was taken in by all sorts of religious smooth talk, and I hung around people who knew the religious sales lingo all too well.

They spoke words that were religious, yet unbiblical, but words that my itching ears wanted to hear: “Only people who think and believe like us are God’s children”; “God only wants us to only help those who are willing to help themselves”; “God wants us to love the sinner but hate the sin”, which was also interpreted, “We should love others, but we don’t have to like others.”

Now, this did keep me out of trouble. It kept me from hanging around or friending anyone who did not think like me and worship like me. And it also kept me from doing anything to help the poor in my community or anyone outside of my church.

The faith instilled in me was personal and private. It was something I possessed, clung to, an exclusive ticket to an eternal home. It was about personal peace and eternal security. It was something that kept me from immorality. And immorality was always limited to personal sin, especially the big five (I know you thought they were 10, but we good Baptists had 5): “Do not to drink, dance, smoke or chew or go with girls who do.”

My faith was always controlled, moderated, tempered, I later learned, watered down. It never challenged the status quo, never disturbed the peace, never questioned why women did not preach in church, or even take up the offering. It never asked why the living quarters for migrant workers in my farming community looked so bad or why all migrant workers were black.

My faith was kept trucked away, wasting away in the dark. Faith was something that we only did on Sunday morning between the hours of 10 and 12. Although going to church often seemed like a waste of time, as I spent many of those hours nodding, sometimes actually napping in my pew, I was taught that this was what made God happy.

But here in Ephesians, Paul is telling me that my faith was actually making God furious. My faith was not merely sleeping in a pew. My faith was dead in the pew.

Wake up from your sleep, Climb out of your coffins; Christ will show you the light!

So watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times!

17 Don’t live carelessly, unthinkingly. Make sure you understand what the Master wants.

18-20 Don’t drink too much wine. That cheapens your life. Drink the Spirit of God, huge draughts of him. Sing hymns instead of drinking songs! Sing songs from your heart to Christ. Sing praises over everything, any excuse for a song to God the Father in the name of our Master, Jesus Christ

Now, like every good Southern Baptist, I knew not to drink too much wine. But I never learned that I was supposed to replace the wine. I never knew I was supposed to drink from the Spirit of God and become God-intoxicated. I did learn that these are desperate times, and my faith involved singing hymns, but only singing hymns to be heard only from behind the stained glass; Not singing and dancing in the streets in the light of the day like some public drunkard!

This passage reminds me of a story from second book of Samuel.

After David led a great army to get possession of the Ark of the Covenant to return it to Jerusalem, David and his army were so overcome with what was going on that they engaged in festive rejoicing and dancing. They were seized by what James Newsome, New Testament professor of Columbia Seminary calls “a spirit of prophetic ecstasy.”

The scriptures say that David sang and danced before God “with all his might.” He sang and danced before God with all that he had and with all that we was. David was God-intoxicated.

And when you become God-intoxicated, so filled with the Spirit of God, you will most certainly disturb the peace and face opposition it.

When David and his wife Michal arrived home from the party and began preparing to turn in for the night, David, if he was anything like me, was probably hoping to hear some words of affirmation from his wife. Something like, “Honey, you were so wonderful today. As I listened to you sing and watched you dance in the streets, you just don’t know how proud I was of you! You danced your heart out! And why shouldn’t you have, you brought the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem where it belongs!”

However, the words David hears are something like: “David, you looked like a drunken fool.”

Perhaps David did act like an intoxicated fool. Uninhibited and unrestrained, he lost all self-control. Seized by “a spirit of prophetic ecstasy,” David held absolutely nothing back. David surrendered to the Spirit which had filled him.

David danced, charged by the rule of God. David danced, electrified by the justice of God. David danced a dance of total self-surrender. David danced, holding nothing back. David danced giving all that he had and all that he was to God. And there was absolutely nothing personal or private about this dance. This dance caused a scene. This dance created a fuss. It got people’s attention. It challenged the status quo. It disturbed the peace. And Michal despised David for it.

This is what happens when one drinks huge draughts of the Spirit of God. This is what happens when one becomes God-intoxicated. There is no way to control it, moderate,  temper it. There is no way to conceal it. There is no way to regulate it to two hours on a Sunday morning. When one becomes drunk with the rule of God, the love of God, one’s feet will inevitably move to the dance of the gospel, and one will be despised for it.

The dance of the gospel is a dangerous dance. The dance of the gospel is a disturbing dance. The active affirmation the rule of God does not set well with the Michals of the world.

The dance of personal, private piety are easier steps to follow, aren’t they? The message of false prophets watering down the gospel of Christ as nothing more than a little dose of “chicken soup for the soul” is much easier to swallow. If we just get ourselves right with the Lord, if we pray right and live right, if we are good moral people, if we don’t drink, smoke or chew or go with girls who do, then God will bless us and one day send us to heaven.

The dance of the gospel is radically different. The dance of the gospel are steps to the beat of a different drum. If we get right with the Lord; if we pray right and live right; if we lose all inhibitions and all restraint; if we completely surrender ourselves to the rule of God; if we love others as Christ loves us, unconditionally, unreservedly; if we question the status quo, if we disturb the peace; if we dance to the beat of this drum, then we will invariably get some push-back.

That’s a good question for all of us who are attempting to follow Jesus, is it not? “In your walk with Jesus, are you getting any push back?”

The answer should always be yes, for the dance of the gospel is a dance of self-surrender to a radical beat. It is a beat of sacrifice. It is a beat of selflessness. It is a beat of self-expenditure. It is a beat of a scandalous love and of an offensive grace. And to world, as the Apostle Paul warned the Corinthians, if we let go and dance to this beat, we are certain to look like fools. And as Luke warned us in Acts chapter 2, when we are filled with the Holy Spirit of God, we may be accused of public drunkenness.

We will be called drunken fools when offer our friendship to a poor woman in a nursing home who can offer us nothing in return.

We will be called drunken fools we spend valuable time volunteering at the hospital, serving lunch in a soup kitchen, building a handicap ramp for a stranger who may never use it, spending a week repairing homes in West Virginia, spending thousands of dollars in Nicaragua, or visiting someone in prison.

We will be called drunken fools when we offer love and forgiveness to our enemies, when we give the shirt off our backs to complete strangers in need.

We will be called drunken fools anytime we love anyone with the self-expending love of Christ—whenever we love someone without inhibitions, without restraints, and without reservations.

We will be called drunken fools when we continue to challenge the status quo, question immoral systems of injustice, and disturb the peace.

For the Michals of the world despise this dance. And they will do everything in their power to stop this dance.

We have all heard their voices: loud echoes which discourage such dancing. “Don’t get too close to him. Do not give your heart to her. You will be sorry. They will only let you down.”

“Don’t love that man. He has done absolutely nothing to deserve it and will never reciprocate.”

“Don’t love that woman. She is too needy. She never does anything to help herself. She will demand too much.”

The voice of Michal say: “The system is not that broken. The poor get what they deserve. Most minorities have it pretty good in our country, and they are the real racists. Public education is not worth fighting for. Healthcare is not a right.”

The voices of Michal say: “Keep your faith private, moderate. Keep it between you and God. Don’t stir up trouble. Just sit on a pew and look forward to going to heaven. Sing behind stained glass. Don’t worry about missions. Don’t worry about your neighbor. Don’t waste your time giving yourself away to strangers. Loving like that is crazy. It is too risky. It leads to too much pain.”

However, there is another voice, a voice heard by David: “These are serious times, so let’s drink large draughts of the Spirit, until we are all God-intoxicated! Let’s sing and dance in the streets with all we have.” It is a voice which says: “Dance! Hold nothing back. Give yourself away. Surrender yourself to the beat of the heart of the gospel. Love. Love honestly and deeply. Love courageously and graciously. Lose yourself. Empty yourself. Pour yourself out. Question the systems of injustice. Challenge the status quo. Disturb the peace.”

Will this love cause pain? It will cause enormous pain. But the joy of God which will consume you will be so immense the suffering will be well worth it.

Garth Brooks once sang a song entitled “the dance.” There’s a line in that song that goes, “I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to have missed the dance.”

Dancing the dance of the gospel will inevitably bring pain. However, never truly following in the steps of Jesus to avoid that pain is never really living. There is no joy being a wallflower on the wall of life or being a Sunday morning pew napper.

So, let us wake up from our sleep and rise from our coffins. Let us drink huge draughts of the spirit of God, and let us dance! May the First Christian Church go out and dance in the streets of Farmville, Greenville, Winterville, Tarboro, Pinetops, Wilson, Fountain and Pikeville and have seizures of prophetic ecstasy! Be warned, we will look like drunken fools, and we will suffer for it. But the immense joy of God, the joy of abundant life, now and forevermore, is well worth it.

The Empty Nest

empty nestOur baby has left the nest for college and for the world, and honestly, her parents are not doing very well.

Because we have lived much longer than she, we are much more aware of the many threats that exist in the world. However, because we love her much more than she is aware, we have chosen to set her free into the threatening world and to pay the price with our suffering.

Although we have taught her well, we know that she will make mistakes and choices that will cause her pain. We also know that she will encounter people who will disappoint her, and some, who will even hurt her.

However, we also know that by setting her free, she has the potential to do so much good in this world. She has many gifts, exceptional abilities and a tremendous love to make this world a better place. But at the same time, we know that there will always be those who will oppose her love by disparaging her gifts and obstructing her good works.

As her parents, we know that as long as we are living, we will always be there for her, doing all that we can do, to forgive her mistakes, to comfort her when she hurts, to encourage her to fulfill her potential, to pick her up when she falls, and to always love her more than we love our own lives, more than she may ever understand. This will inevitably bring us more pain, but without any doubt, we know our baby is worth it.

The prophet Isaiah often referred to God as a mother who suffers for her children. Jesus often called God “father.” Suffering in the empty nest, we know, more fully than ever, why.

Consequently, although we may not be doing very well these days, we know, honestly and more fully, we will be just fine.

Downward, Upward, and Forward Behind Jesus

Jarrett Banks Red Stole

I have decided to change the title of my blog from “Stumbling, Bumbling, and Fumbling Behind Jesus” to “Downward, Upward, and Forward Behind Jesus.” Here’s why:

With “Stumbling, Bumbling, and Fumbling,” I wanted to make the point that I am an imperfect person on a flawed journey attempting to be a follower of Jesus. However, I have decided that “Stumbling, Bumbling, and Fumbling” may place more emphasis on my imperfections, weaknesses and shortcomings, than it does on God’s extravagant grace. With “Downward, Upward and Forward,” I hope to make it less about what I am doing or not doing, and make it more about what God is doing and will do.

It is my hope that “Downward” emphasizes humility, but also what Henri Nouwen calls “the downward mobility” of Jesus. Throughout the gospels, Jesus is portrayed as one who: moves down to sit at the lowest seat at the table; bends down to wash the disciples feet; stoops down to welcome small children; crouches down to defend, befriend and forgive the sinner; reaches down to serve the poor; lowers himself down to accept the outcast, to touch the leper, to welcome the foreigner, to heal the sick, to raise the dead and to pick up and carry his cross.

It is my hope that “Upward,” which comes after “Downward,” emphasizes a willingness to always humbly rise up, speak up, and stand up against the evils and injustices of our world. I do not wish to be a minister who is more mainstream than upstream, and in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “…more cautious than courageous.” I pray that I will always resist the temptation to remain silently “behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

It is my hope that “Forward” emphasizes a faith that is progressively moving forward into the gracious promise of God’s future for all people and for all creation. I seek to follow behind the Christ who always leads from out ahead, drawing us into God’s future: beckoning, welcoming, loving, renewing, restoring, and resurrecting.

I will certainly continue to “stumble, bumble and fumble” along behind Jesus, as my journey as a follower of Christ will continue to be flawed; however, with the extravagant grace of God, I hope to follow in a way that is always “downward, upward, and forward.”