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If There Was One Word…

There are many good and necessary words in my theological vocabulary. The word “love” goes without saying, but goodness knows it needs to be said nowadays. Speaking of goodness, I would add good. Mercy, justice, and steadfast are all important words. Sin too, and with it forgiveness. As I reflect over a theological vocabulary, there are many, many words that come to mind. What words would you add?   If there was only one word to sum up the entirety of my own working theology, it would be this – grace. I am not sure when this word became THE word for me, but somewhere along the path it laid claim to my loyalties. While there is no candle on the Advent wreath dedicated to grace, there ought to be and we ought to light it daily.   Grace means gift. It is a gift freely given that comes without merit or works. All of my life I have been blessed with gifts that I did not deserve, nor ask for. I was born in a part of the world that gave me privileges and opportunities. My father and grandparents loved and provided for me; church nurtured me; and teachers who…well, they tried their best! All of my life I have been blessed with gifts that I did not deserve, but gratefully received.   This is not to say that all of my life has been idyllic or charmed. I grew in a divorced home. Growing up on a farm meant that much of the time we had very little in the way of luxuries compared to my friends....

A Lamp Unto My Desk

At the tender age of 22 I had served the good folks of Unity Baptist for nearly two years. During that time I grew a beard, got engaged, married, finished college, and prepared to move to Louisville, KY to attend seminary. This church loved me through and through, even though I was not much better behind the pulpit than when I started and had lots to learn about being a pastor. Still, they blessed me and bless me still.   My final Sunday with them came on a warm May morning. There was a covered dish luncheon following the service, so the pressure was on to keep my sermon brief. At the luncheon Amy and I were showered with affection, cards, well-wishes, and one very special gift from the church – a brass desk lamp. It was given to me with the hope that it would help me through my studies in seminary, as well as the many years ahead as a pastor.   I have lugged that lamp with me – all the way to Kentucky and back – for the last quarter of a century. As a student it was perched on my desk in the corner of our tiny apartment, illuminating my studies even the Hebrew was still dark and mysterious. It has traveled with me to some great pastorates in Georgia including Mansfield, Chickamauga, Marietta and for the last ten years Augusta. On cold days I place my hands over the brass shade to enjoy a little warmth. When days are short and mornings and evening are dark, it casts a beautiful glow from my...

In-Between Addresses

We are living in-between addresses. I know that sounds odd, but I can find no better way to describe our living situation. Our house is now sold and belongs to another, and a new home waits in another city, so right now for these weeks stretching into the New Year, we are living in-between addresses. Among other things this means most of our worldly goods are packed up and in storage, including eight boxes of Christmas decorations that we have accumulated over the years. Could this be a year of no Christmas? Of course not.   Thanks to online searching, Amy found a recipe for cookie dough ornaments: cinnamon, applesauce, and glue. They smell wonderful, but take my word for it, you do not want to eat one! The irony is that twenty-seven years ago we were doing the same thing, but with a different recipe, for our first Christmas – making cookie dough ornaments for our first Christmas together. You make do, with what you have. This year, along with some ribbon and craft acrylics, we decorated our freshly baked ornaments, strung a couple of strands of lights on a modest tree bought at a grocery store and at a total cost of about $40 Christmas has come to our “in-between address.”   I suppose we all are living in-between addresses. We move from a past that can never be recovered and into a future that is anything but certain. All we have is the in-between times, the meantime, the beautiful and mysterious now. Advent is that cosmic pause in a universe moving rapidly from one space to...

For Everything There is a Season

The afternoon was mild and warmed with welcome fall sunshine. Ten consecutive days of rain had created a muddy mess all around the barn, but none of us gathered there minded the mud so much. I was standing with my two brothers and father on a concrete slab layered in mud and manure, gently pushing Holsteins, Brown Swisses and Jerseys toward the barn for a final milking. After 103 years – over 75,000 consecutive milkings – the DeLoach & Sons Dairy was about to milk its last cow. Even though at the age of 18 I could not leave the farm fast enough, I was not going to miss it. Amy, Clark, a couple of nephews, my sister, and the wives of my daddy and brothers were not going to miss it either.   A switch was thrown and the familiar hum of the compressor that runs the milking machines came to life. It was time to milk the last herd of dairy cows. Outside four cattle trailers waited to load the cows and take them to the auction barn once the milking was complete. A local farmer who just a few years ago sold his herd came by to visit and commiserate. All of us laughed a bit, reminisced, and worked with cows placing the milking machines on their udders, and listening to the cows snort and blow oblivious to their next move. A few brief hours later, as the sun began to cast its setting glow along the pastures out back, the last of the cows came through. Daddy milked her and just like that it was...

Seeing and Saying Thanks

There is so much in life that is not fully appreciated until it is a memory. Relationships come quickly to mind. When Amy and I were newlyweds we lived on a very meager income, rented a garage apartment that smelled of mothballs, and did not have a television for the first six months of marriage. It seems so long ago and as I now recall that first year my heart is warmed with gratitude that Amy and I said “I do.” A few years later children forevermore changed our lives. I remember those early days when our boys were infants and the midnight feedings and diapering as well as long sleepless nights of colic. To be honest, it was just about impossible to notice and be grateful. Yet looking back I am grateful, even for those grueling days of early parenting. Through the years we would gripe about driving all over the state to visit relatives during the holidays and wonder if we should just stay home. Now many of those same relatives are dead and we wish we could just share a sandwich.   We do not always see our gratitude until it is a reflection of the past. And then we are often rushing right past gratitude on the way to something else. Perhaps it is too obvious to point out that Christmas decorations have been out since early fall. I am not Scrooge, but I have a deep problem with our rush to Christmas because in doing so we trample Thanksgiving.   To be grateful is to both see and say our thanks. Alan Culpepper writes...

What Does God Look Like?

Every child wants to know, and many have the courage to ask, “What does God look like?” The adult in all of us wants to quickly answer in a theologically correct way saying, “God cannot be pictured. An image is idolatrous because no one image can ever be complete.” Still, the child in all of us wants to know, “what does God look like?”   When I was in high school my art teacher shocked my juvenile prejudices when he showed me a picture of a mural he painted for his church. The scene included a depiction of Jesus. His Jesus had ebony black skin and wiry afro. This was no Jesus like I had ever seen. Yet it was very much Jesus to my art teacher and his church.   Some see God as a triumphant king or a valiant warrior. Others see God as an ethereal mystery, elusive and distant. There are those that see God as a manifestation of Western values while others picture God only in the Southern Hemisphere.   What does God look like to you?   Look in the mirror. In Genesis are the words: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” God is etched in our faces – young and old, shaded in a variety of pigments, reflected in our wholeness and brokenness. The idea of being created in the image of God is captured in the poetically beautiful phrase Imago Dei.   What is idolatrous is when we attempt to contain God in a singular or exclusive image....

Broken Things…

Several weeks ago I was making my routine Sunday morning rounds during the Sunday School hour. It is one of my favorite parts of the day as I stick my head in classes, say “good morning,” grip and grin and maybe snag a pastry (any pastry will do) on the way out. Please do not worry about the last part, the part about the pastries, because I limit myself to only three or four; maybe five if it is homemade. Anyway, on this day I was hustling out of the preschool building in kind of a hurry because, as we all know, doughnuts are hard to find in a preschool. It somewhere between the lobby and the door when my beloved coffee cup – the one made by a gifted local potter – slipped from my hand and broke in three distinct pieces. Ugh. I carried the remains back to my office, searched for some glue, but in vain gave up and left the cup on an unsuspecting assistant’s desk (whom I thought might have glue).   Two days later my cup was back on my desk, mended and restored. It was almost as good as new, except for the mended cracks.   Some broken things can be mended. Some not. Last year we learned of the death of comedian and actor Robin Williams. He was a broken man who just could not get mended. I am still sad for the loss of this life. Every day we are moving around and alongside broken things and broken people. Some things you see: a wheelchair, a cane, a cast, a band-aide...

Old Notebooks

Since 1985 I have kept notebooks and journals to record personal thoughts, make notes, list needs to be remembered in prayer, and offer reflections on everything from the weather to a new idea picked up in a book. For the better part of a decade I have also kept a “garden journal” where I jot observation of the goings and comings of my back yard. There I note how things are growing (or not), what is blooming and when, and what mammals, birds or reptiles are on the move. At the church office I keep a journal that was given to me when I left for seminary. It is record book of baptisms, marriages and funerals (thanks Dede Maddox for keeping that one up to date!).   For no particular reason, I will occasionally take one of those old notebooks from the shelf and read snatches from my past. Some inclusions are pithy and simplistic and quite frankly embarrassing to read. I am thinking to myself, “I cannot believe I wrote that…thought that…how naïve!” Yet it is part of my past. Some entries list the names of great people whom I heard preach, teach or lecture; many of which have returned to the earth from which they were created. My personal journals include thoughts and struggles as well as joys and hopes. My old notebooks and journals are simple reminders of where I have been – good and bad, memorable and forgettable. In the end they are just pieces of paper that will one day come to nothing.   No doubt you are familiar with the saying, “Life is...

A Spare and a Prayer

Last week I was in North Georgia plowing through a forest service road looking for a spot to pitch a tent and count some stars. To the uninformed and uninitiated, a forest service road is off the beaten path of the comparatively tame asphalt byways. This particular road carves through a national forest used by campers, hikers and I assume national forest workers (although I have never seen the latter). The road was, well, challenging – packed dirt, loose rocks, with divots, holes, and the occasional carcass of something that did not make it across the road. A few miles into the ride, just around the bend my tire pressure light lit up on the dash panel indicating I was losing pressure fast. This was not a good place to have a flat tire – miles away from anyone and well out of cell phone coverage. Of course is there ever a good place to have a flat?   Well into jacking up the jeep, and fumbling with the spare, a mountain biker chugged by and offered to help. “I am fine,” I said, wondering just what help a dude on his bicycle could actually provide. Soon a truck ambled by and its driver also offered to lend a hand. “No thank you,” I answered, now confessing gratitude that on this lonely road there were folks willing and able to help if needed. I was grateful too to have both a spare and a prayer.   A spare and a prayer; these are the tools to help get the job done and inspiration to see it through.   What...

Time is But the Stream

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”― Henry David Thoreau, Walden   On a morning that radiated summer heat, several of us gently gathered into the sanctuary to sit awhile with our thoughts, remembering and giving thanks for Dr. Wilson Hall. For some he was a colleague and friend, who could be found coaxing a fire at a campsite, or paddling his canoe along a river, or mulling over an article just published. For others, including me, he was a professor and mentor. His lectures were laced with snatches of German, quotes from Thoreau, and musings on God. Gentle, but solid, he changed the lives of many, including my own, by reminding us that life was too beautiful to live carelessly; too brief to live without passion; too precious to live without hope.   Looking around that morning there were fellow classmates now thirty years older and thirty years grayer, as well as former professors long retired from their lecterns. It was a tender time with the air filled with eulogies (good words) spoken and unspoken. It was a blessed moment in time where tears were mixed with gratitude.   Just a few days later I was back in Northwest Georgia visiting dear friends from my first pastorate – Unity Baptist Church. Quite a few years ago they invested in me when I was toddling 21 year old, head-strong and full of answers no one was asking. Still these members believed in...

Enough

Last month while on vacation my boys left a couple of days before the week’s end to head back to Augusta, work, and friends. As I was hugging them bye and seeing them off, I thought about how it never seems to be “enough” with my boys who are now young men. Never enough time…enough play…enough work…enough hours in the day…enough love…enough rest…enough money…enough faith…enough laughter…enough intelligence…enough friends.   Why is it, I wondered at the edge of the dunes watching my boys drive away, that scarcity seems to be the one thing we have enough of? At work and home and play, we are more defined by what we do not have enough of than what is truly enough.   Even church does not escape this culture of scarcity. Never enough in the budget…enough teachers in Sunday School…enough laps in the nursery…enough visits to the elderly…enough activities for the students…enough clarity of faith…enough worshipers on Sunday…enough fried chicken on Wednesday!   Maybe that is why some of the most memorable stories in the Bible are those that confront scarcity. Moses calls for bread from heaven and water from the rock to provide in the barren wilderness. Elijah depressed and alone, meets God not in the mighty acts of earthquake or fire, but in the still small voice. Jesus holds up a few loaves and fish and feeds the multitude. Somehow in the scarcity there is provision. There is enough.   Can you allow yourself the grace of enough even in your scarcity? Your love and worth is not measured by the number of likes on Facebook or Instagram,...

Mercy…me

A beach is a lovely place for me to go to escape, but this year there was no escaping some of the big events in our country. The Charleston tragedy was just over a week old on the day I left for vacation. That same day with my Jeep loaded with chairs, towels and swim suites the Supreme Court handed down its decision making legal same-sex marriages in our country. There is a lot of anxiety that has been raised, primarily in the faith community, about what this means for the church. As far as the decision itself, it does not mean anything directly to our church. The First Amendment protects all religions to practice according to its beliefs. It is a great gift of freedom that our Baptist forebears struggled for in the earliest days of our country. Unless our church decides to change the wedding practices of nearly 200 years and wed same-sex couples, the Supreme Court’s decision has no impact.   There are those that say this decision threatens the institution of marriage. I have to disagree. Marriage, however, does have threats. Take co-habitation as one example. I estimate that 75% or more of the couples I counsel and whose marriages I officiate are cohabitating or otherwise sexually active. Many of you have children that are cohabitating with a significant other. Data suggests that cohabitation can contribute to less-stable marriages due in part to an unwillingness to make lasting commitments, yet this lifestyle, according to data and my own observations, is on the increase. Divorce is certainly another threat to marriage. In fact the issue of...

Walking Across the Street on Sunday

It has been a difficult seven or so days for this country, but especially those at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. We all know what happened there, so there is no need in repeating what we know. We know it was horrific. We know it was drenched in hate. We know too that in spite of the intended racial division, we have witnessed great acts of charity and forgiveness. You and I know all of that.   What I do not know, however, are our neighbors. Right across from our magnificent church is a smaller congregation that sits in the shadow of our steeple. Gardner Grove Baptist Church is primarily an African-American congregation. They are not particularly prominent or large in number, so maybe that is why I have not encountered my neighbors. I do know they are faithful. Sundays and Wednesdays their parking lot is full, as well as other days when there is a wedding or funeral or some other special event.   Still, after ten years I have never met our neighbors across the street from our church. Following the Charleston massacre I knew it was long overdue for me to meet our neighbors. Between worship services this past Sunday I walked across the hot asphalt street that divides our congregations and entered the foyer of their sanctuary. They were well into worship so I was sensitive to the fact that my presence would be conspicuous as well as an interruption to their service. I left a card with the sound technician to give to the pastor that said something to the effect, “I...

In Search of Our Laughing Place…

In my hometown we still remember a man who grew up on a plantation on the east side of the county (just a couple of miles from my family’s dairy). As a boy he listened to the enslaved Africans tell folk stories that originated in West Africa and beyond. When he grew up, Joel Chandler Harris brought those stories of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox to life through print. Not many people today know much about the “Tales of Uncle Remus,” but those stories were a steady part of my own upbringing. We read them and home and heard them read at school.   Our town is so proud of these beloved tales that there is even a statue of Br’er Rabbit at the court house square in “downtown” Eatonton. About five years ago a few young men thought it would be funny to steal the statue. This turned out not to be funny at all because in the dismantling of the rabbit, an ear broke off and an Eatonton “APB” was issued. The assailants panicked, ditched the rabbit in the woods, and eventually confessed to their bunny burglary. The statue of Br’er Rabbit has reassumed its prominent place on its podium in my dear town.   One story of Br’er Rabbit is about his “Laughing Place.” Space does not allow the sharing of the whole story, but one line is sufficient: “Everybody needs a laughing place.”   Lord knows, everybody needs a laughing place. Where is your laughing place? Growing up our kitchen table was the source of our family’s laughter as stories were told (and...

Our Shabby Biographies

I have a couple of special places at home designated for reading. In the early morning (before daylight) I sit in my recliner in the living room. Beside my chair is an “end table” which was originally an old chamber pot bench (complete with chamber pot). On that small bench is where I stack my books.  My other spot is on my back porch. I have been known to sit out there in the dead of winter – gloves, heavy coat and all – deep in a good read.   This year, for no particular reason, I have read several biographies and memoirs. Biographies are not necessarily my favorite genre, but one well written is worth the time. From Genghis Kahn to Johnny Cash, people are generally interesting if you pay attention to their story, and everybody has a story.   At the risk of sounding narcissistic, sometimes I wonder what an author might write about my life. “A thoughtful soul; quick to laugh at sophomoric things; and has a fondness for strange antiques.” No doubt my biographer would pour over all my writings, including articles like this one. From such research it could be said of me, “Grammatically clumsy, but passionate in convictions and winsome with nostalgia.” Of course biographers have to get into the family background and here again I am not wanting for material. “An eclectic upbringing; surrounded by hard-working farmers on the rocky piedmont soil of middle Georgia.”   A good biography usually shows the complexity of its subject. No one person is “all good” (not even Johnny Cash) or “all bad” (same with Genghis...

Keeper of Bees

There was a time in my life when I was no friend of a bee. Today, due to the generosity of a thoughtful church member, I am a keeper of bees. Each morning I walk out to the hive to wish them a good day and every evening I lean in close to the entrance of their home and wish them a good night. I would name them, but there is right at 20,000 of them and it is challenging to tell them all apart. Plus they fly so fast. I never thought insects that sting would bring me such pleasure, but they most certainly do. Selfishly I am hoping to reap some additional benefit this summer in the form of golden honey. I am not sure what to label it – “Parson’s Nectar;” “Biscuit Blessings;” “Samson’s Syrup”?   I am amazed that such a tiny insect – about a half of an inch – can be so wondrously designed. One queen controls the entire colony that by day explores the surrounding landscape. The workers carry on the vital task of pollination, gently filling the hive with pollen, nectar, wax comb and honey. They even talk with each other in a coded dance telling where to find the next great patch of pollen: “past the poplar, left at the geranium, and there you will find a large bed of lantana. Watch out for the creepy guy with a beard.” What amazes me is that these bees by the thousands know to come back home at the end of each day. They know where they belong and how they belong...

Mamas in the Birdhouse

This is the time of year in which I am endlessly entertained with bluebirds nesting and now hatching out another generation of young. Papa birds are easy to identify with their brilliant colors. It was Henry David Thoreau that said a bluebird looks as though he “carries the sky on his back.” While he gets all the attention, it is the mamma bird that really counts. Without her there would be no eggs and therefore no young.   One year one of our birdhouses was a home to a mama squirrel and her young. From does tending to the fawns, to herons guarding their nests perched at the top of sycamores, may God bless all the good mammas in this world!   Over the years I have known some wonderful mothers. One mother I knew would arise in the dark hours of the morning and see to it that my sister, brothers and I awoke to a crackling blaze in the fireplace. While we were not the wealthiest family in Putnam County, we ate like royalty. Biscuits were her specialty, but she was not bad with fried chicken or mashed potatoes either. Everyone in our family called her Nannan – my grandmother. She died just over eleven years ago and I still miss her, but she still shows up in a sermon illustration here and there.   Amy’s mother died about two weeks before my grandmother, and she too was a “mother of mothers.” I called her Ruby when I was a newly minted husband as well as an official member of the family but within a year or two...

According to Nature

A few evenings ago I was cutting grass along the shoulder of the road while my neighbor was cutting down and sectioning a dead tree in his front yard. As I was trudging behind my push mower, my neighbor was hauling away the logs of the hollowed out pine. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed he quickly dropped a log and so thinking that he needed help I shut off the mower and met him in his front yard. He looked at me and said, “I think there is a snake with a bird in the log.” Not wanting to pass up this act of nature and I had a look for myself and sure enough, there was a king snake coiled around the remains of a bird. Apparently earlier in the day the bird flew into the hollow of the tree and was surprised by a visitor for dinner.   When I left this morning I noticed in my neighbor’s front yard the log still in place, presumably with the snake ensconced in it digesting its meal. I have a feeling the log will remain for the foreseeable future.   Not-so-pleasant surprises come in all forms: snakes in the grass, yellow-jackets in the shrubbery, or bats in the eaves. I suppose at times it feels like nature is working against us, but then again nature usually does what it is supposed to do.   What about our nature; how do we live and act according to our nature? The evidence is mixed. We pollute the earth and our bodies; we exact great harm upon others out...

Good Friday Means it is God’s Friday

The events of Good Friday are well known and often told by believers and followers throughout the world. Each Gospel offers only one word to describe what happened: crucified. Though we want all the gory details – we live in a culture of violence after all – not much is actually told. He was beaten; a crown of thorns was pressed on his head; nails secured him to the cross beam; a spear pierced his side. There are very few adjectives used and not much in the way of grisly poetry to elevate this story. We are left with our imaginations to fill in the spaces.   In fixating on the violence we sometimes overlook the more subtle indignities. There is the sign we read of in John’s Gospel that hangs over Jesus’ crucified head. In three languages it reads: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. Today this sign is symbolized through the acronym based on the Latin letters: INRI. At that first Good Friday many saw this sign as false advertising, including the religious leaders. “He is not our king.” Some perceived this as his charge and therefore justification for this capital punishment. He says he is king of the Jews so the Romans will show you what they do to those who think they can usurp their imperial power. Maybe the sign was just a simple mockery; a humiliation. Some king, right?   What sign are you hanging on Jesus today? Is it political, using Jesus to defend your ideology? Is it a sign of convenience, labeling Jesus as your own, but only partly so?...

Ah, the Beautiful Smell of…Compost?!

Do you compost? It is the best kind of recycling one can do. Compost consists of most any biodegradable material such as raw vegetables, coffee grounds, leaves, grass, and fruit. I keep a compost pile in the woods out behind my yard. Once it has thoroughly rotted – I think the correct term is “decomposed” – it becomes “gardener’s gold” and useful for all sorts of planting needs. I use it to amend and nourish the soil so that it will bear new life in the spring.   I suppose Holy Week is a composting of sorts. We are spiritually stripped down to the essentials, reminded that we must die to our old lives of sin and waste. But through this spiritual death God is able to raise within us new lives full of beauty and promise. Holy Week is the biblical reminder that we cannot long remain the same. The weeds of care and concern, sin and transgression threaten to choke out the good fruit of generous lives. Our generous God transforms all this waste into something good and holy through the cross and into the resurrection.   This Holy Week and Easter here are the ways in which you and I are invited cultivate our hearts and souls: Maundy Thursday (Matthew 26, Mark 14; Luke 22) will be observed in the Fellowship Hall at 7pm. There are a number of themes observed or commemorated on this day including the last meal with the disciples, which was probably a Passover meal, the institution of the Lord’s Supper or Communion, the betrayal of Judas, and the washing of feet....

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