Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Collection

Long years ago when I was at the Talbotton Church, a member who lived out in what was called the Redbone Community gave me a book. It was, however, no ordinary book. Entitled, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, it was some 500 pages in length. I never have gotten around to reading it, but I valued it then and continue to do so now. Written in 1836, it became the first book in my collection of pre-1900 religious books. Like any collector, I have enjoyed the search. When traveling I always look for the old book collections full of dust and mold. Over the years the collection has grown to almost 75 volumes. I did not really start out to collect these old musty books, but somewhere along the way, it started happening.
Most of these old books are rather ordinary, costing a dollar or two and the breathing of some very old dust. A few have become more like treasures. The old saying about "one man's junk, another man's treasure" is certainly applicable when it comes to this collection of old religious books. But, it has been fun. I still remember the day I opened a package and received the gift of an 1818 edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs by Isaac Watts. It felt like treasure in my hands! It still does! While I have several old Disciplines of the Methodist Church, my oldest edition is dated 1896. Another prize is The Epworth Hymnal put together for the church in 1886. One of them, an 1884 devotional book entitled, Daily Strength for Daily Needs, I actually used one year as a part of my devotional reading. Occasionally, I will pull one out and read something written and used in another era which I also find interesting.
This treasure of mine would be regarded as trash by most folks. When I am dead, my wife and children will have a hard time selling them at the final yard sale. Who knows? Maybe there will be another crazy collector out there? I have often asked myself , "Why?" It really makes no sense. I have finally decided it has something to do with being connected to a faith that is not transient and disposable. Nowadays, nothing seems to be something which cannot be thrown away or replaced. Oh, I know the story of faith is an old, old story. I have its record in scripture. These old books also speak to me about the fact that the story of faith and the writing about it has been around a long time and is not going away. Maybe holding a 150 year old book in my hands serves as an additional testimony of a faith that is timeless and of which I am by the grace of God a part.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Impossible Prayers

A few nights ago during a devotional time, I found myself thinking about Luke 1:37. It is a verse which says, "For nothing will be impossible with God." Obviously, it is a Word given to Mary as she hears the angelic news that she is going to bear a son, whom she will name Jesus. Mary is perplexed and confused by the news. For her what the angel is saying is an impossible thing. Though engaged to be married to Joseph, she knew there was nothing about their relationship which would make her being pregnant a possibility. She declares this to the angel and hears, "For nothing will be impossible with God."
In the context of my devotional time, it was a Word which spoke to me about prayer. It called me to pray for impossible things. I did not take it to mean I should pray for a mountain to suddenly appear between our house and the river. Neither, did I think about praying for the sun to shine in the middle of the night. Instead, I was caused to think about those things which I have put in the impossible box. I was caused to think of the things I have ceased praying about because I have given up on God to respond. In my spirit I think, "Some things God is simply not going to do anything about, so I might as well cease in my praying." However, on this evening I sensed that I should return to my prayers about things which seem impossible. I immediately began my list.
We all probably have something we would put on our list of impossible prayers. It could be a prayer about a family member who insists on remaining outside of a relationship with Jesus, or someone who is seriously ill, or relief from overwhelming financial difficulties. Whatever it is that we have given up on, or about to give up on, surely speaks of the impossible prayers in our life. The Word I heard the other night was, For nothing will be impossible with God." It was a word that put me back to praying about some things. I pray it works that way for you as well.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Wrestling Match

Some sermons seem to literally fly off the keyboard and onto the computer monitor. The words come more quickly than the fingers are able to type them. The room seems filled with inspiration. Thoughts flow logically and persuasively. Taking such sermons to the pulpit is exciting. There is a special sense of anticipation that is a part of the worship service and the act of preaching. With such a sermon ready to preach, I find myself thinking, "I can't wait to see what God is going to do with this one."
But, there are other times when preparing to preach is more like a wrestling match. No matter how many times I try to get it up off the floor, it keeps getting slammed back at me. The keyboard keys are like strangers. I have no idea which ones to touch. The thoughts not only fail to come with any logic; they fail to come at all. I find myself just sitting there and when I finally do get started, it is a struggle from beginning to end. Some would say I have not prayed enough. Sometimes this is true. Some might say I have not thought through the goal and purpose of the sermon. This, too, has happened. Sometimes I start out not sure where I am going which is not a good way to write a sermon. Some would say the struggle speaks of Satan trying to hinder the proclamation of a Word he does not want preached. Sometimes such does need to be considered. The scripture makes it clear he desires to undermine what God is about in our lives. Some might say the struggle is about physical laziness or mental weariness. Knowing me as I do, both are always possibilities.
Regardless of the reason, getting ready to preach this past week has been like a wrestling match. When I finished, there was more relief than anticipation. For the preacher Sunday morning's appointment is not an option to meet if you feel like it, but one that must be met whether or not you feel like you are ready to go. Fortunately, the delivery or the preaching of the sermon was not as bad as the writing it. There have been times when the act of preaching only seemed like Round 2. I am thankful today's preaching was different. I am thankful that when it was done there was a sense that God had brought blessing despite or through my struggling effort.
(A printed copy of this sermon and the one preceding it in the series can be read at Click on "About Us" and go to sermons.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Water Stop

It has indeed been a long time since the Water Stop. I was not quite ten years of age when I was baptized in the Hebardville Methodist Church on the northern edge of Waycross, Georgia. The pastor who would later become my step-father was the one who put the water on my head and said the baptismal words. I have some recollections of that Sunday. I can place myself at a particular place at the altar rail in that small sanctuary. What I do not have is a recollection of some Damascus Road experience with Jesus. All I can honestly confess is an awareness that I needed to respond to God in some way and baptism was for me at that particular moment the right thing to do.
When I was not quite ten, I did not have much of a grasp of baptismal theology. Yet, even without the understanding, it was for me the nailing down of an important marker in my spiritual life. In one sense it marked the beginning of my journey with God and in another sense it spoke of my need as a child to acknowledge my own consciousness of God and my need to be related to Him. Looking back it probably did not exactly fit the mold of a believer's baptism. It would be some years later when I was finishing up high school that I would come to a moment which was for me the beginning of an adult understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.
Since those childhood days, I have learned something about the theology of baptism. Seminary and years of going to the Water Stop with others has certainly shaped what I have come to understand and believe about baptism. Still, no amount of training or experience has diminished the sense of being in the presence of divine mystery each time I go to this place of grace. Whenever the baptismal waters are stirred, it seems that someone leaves marked for life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. The water may dry and become unseen by others, but somehow it must surely remain as a visible marking always seen by God.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Still a Bishop

While I think about Gary more than once every four years, I always remember him with a smile when the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference meets at Lake Junaluska, NC to elect new bishops to lead our church. This is the year and the month for this Conference. Gary was a member of the Talbotton Church, my third appointment. Even though a member of the corporate world, Gary was every bit a southern gentleman. He lived in an old historic home with his lovely wife and a house full of lively daughters. He knew how to stroke a young preacher. He was always telling me I was going to be a Bishop one day. If I were to see him tomorrow, he would probably still be saying the same thing. He is just that kind of guy. He remains one of those who has offered faithful encouragement to me over the years. The only time he ever expressed any doubts about his prophecy was the first time he saw me with a beard. It was few years after I had left Talbotton and he said something like, "Bill, I don't know of any Bishops with beards!"
Actually, being elected a Bishop at Jurisdictional Conference was never anything I ever really entertained. What most folks don't know is that I had already been elected a Bishop by the time I was assigned to Talbotton. Why, I was elected a Bishop before I was even ordained! It did not happen in North Carolina, but at Young Harris College in the North Georgia mountains. When I went there in 1966, there was a campus ministerial group. Unlike most campus organizations, it did not have a president. Instead, its elected leader was called Bishop. It was in my second year at YHC that I was elected Bishop. So, there is no need for the delegates at Junaluska to consider me as a candidate for Bishop this year. I was elected long years ago and as they say, "Once a Bishop, always a Bishop!"