Aug 31, 2012

Three Fiction Books Worth Your Time

Since some in my circle—a very small one, alas—asked what I have been reading this summer, I thought it would be good to recommend my favorite three fiction books from the summer of 2012. Two have been re-reads; the other completely new to me.

The first book I would recommend is for those who enjoy wackiness. That is to say, if you can abide the humor of Monty Python, you will love the book A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Many of us have been keeping New Orleans in our prayers this week and, as luck would have it, this book is set in that great old city which has so much character. Speaking of character, this book is about a weird guy, named Ignatius J. Reilly, who sells hot dogs. The whole book, from beginning to end, is about the misadventure of Ignatius, who gets involved with characters nearly as vibrant as he is. A Confederacy of Dunces, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, will make you laugh, as will my second recommendation.

T. R. Pearson’s A Short History of a Small Place is a short and funny novel about a mythical town in North Carolina called Neely. A narrator tells the story of the town’s zany and entertaining Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew. She is always full of surprises and my favorite part concerns her pet monkey—who is always full of inventive surprises. I bought about ten copies of the book, but always give them all away. This book is a laugh a minute!

For the reader who likes humor, the third and last book I will recommend is Puddenhead Wilson, which some have called Mark Twain's latest novel. This story of a black child and white child switched at birth and the funny things that happen to them, is also Twain’s social commentary on American life in the 1890s. Set in a Mississippi town in the days of slavery, with a mystery and crime thrown, this book forces readers to look at their attitudes toward many social conventions in the light of pretentious humor.

If you have some time and need some good laughs, any of these three books will fill the bill.

Aug 24, 2012

August and Assurance: Faith Yoked to Hope (Part 2)

Hebrews 11:1-2 tells its readers that, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.” Most people I know, and this includes pastors, need people and promises they can count on. We also know that in the church, however, are two kinds of people: promise keepers and promise breakers. Preachers generally embrace the former and avoid the later, however un-theological it may be. After all, preachers are human too. We want to deal confidently with folks who are in ministry with us. Yet, we all know the all too human shortcoming of forgetting what we promise—or simply refusing to do things that we had committed to earlier.

When I attended the University of Texas, I had a wonderful professor named Dr. James Kinneavy. Rhetoricians generally recognized Kinneavy as one of the world’s leading authorities in the academic discipline of rhetoric. I loved to meet with him and soak up all the wisdom and knowledge that he dispensed without even realizing it. He knew Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Augustine backwards and forwards—and so many other great rhetorical scholars as well. The problem was that although he could cite any text in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics or The Rhetoric by both chapter and verse, he could not remember lunch dates he made with me to discuss my reading assignments. We would make a lunch date and three times out of four he would fail to appear. He always apologized, but after a while anyone might get gun-shy when setting plans for lunch with him. We all want to count on promises made by others. This is perhaps most especially true about the promises God makes to us.

John Wesley was one of those great souls who spent much of his life looking for assurance or what Hebrews might call the “things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” He searched scripture, church history, church doctrine, and the minds and hearts of all he respected. Yet, the peace and inner calm he sought continued to elude him. Finally, as Methodist lore tells the story, Wesley found that peace of mind in the assurance of God’s love at a little church on Aldersgate Street, as he listened to someone read Luther’s preface to the commentary on the book of Romans. The United Methodist Book of Worship puts it this way: “On Wednesday, May 24, 1738, John Wesley experienced his “heart strangely warmed.” This Aldersgate experience was crucial for his own life and became a touchstone for the Wesleyan movement (United Methodist Publishing House, 1992, p. 439).

Generally, the feeling of assurance is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Some people get it immediately upon conversion; while others, like Wesley, search for it for many years. My guess is that assurance is like the missing remote control for the television. About the time we stop looking for it, then it finds us.

Assurance is the calmness people sense and feel when they know God has sent Jesus to save and redeem us. It is an inner testimony by the Holy Spirit that God loves us and offers us salvation in Jesus. But assurance is not an equivalent to knowledge. Rather, assurance is more like a promise that we completely and fully believe, accept, and trust. This “faith” then gives us the confidence to lead lives that befit the gospel. As Paul himself says, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

As believers, the bedrock of our ability to live abundant lives is to have confidence or assurance that God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is our ultimate anchor. Every other idol, whether in nature or even in our own success, is a chimera. These objects of false confidence are fleeting and untrustworthy. Faith in Christ is the only trust in abundant life that we believers can grasp.

As people of faith we live between two alternatives. One alternative leads to countless questions that eventually bring us back to where we began. The other alternative is to live in faith until the Holy Spirit grants us that inner peace with God we call assurance. I grasp at this second option because, after all, hasn’t God already given us everything else?

Aug 17, 2012

August and Assurance: Faith Yoked to Hope (Part 1)

Read Hebrews 11:1-7

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval” (Hebrews 11:1-2).

An old aphorism has it that “there are no guarantees in life.” Another quotation that often accompanies the one about guarantees is that, “Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.” How universal is this sentiment? Have you seen the refrigerator magnet with these words emblazoned upon it: “Life is uncertain—eat dessert first?” What each of these concepts holds in common is a universal human tendency to desire an ironclad agreement between life and us. We want to know what we can count on—so that we may leave the rest to chance. However, as the quotations suggest, between life and us there are few ironclad agreements made.

Truthfully, all people need a foundation from which to operate in life. Some things we seem to count on without much thought. For one, most of us upon waking do not worry much about whether or not our heart will beat throughout the day. We take this fact of our physiology for granted. Likewise, few of us have anxiety that suddenly the laws of nature, for example the reality of gravity, will somehow be other than we have always known it to be. Do you worry about whether or not the sun will come up? Do you persistently concern yourself about the ozone layer or the atmospheric pressure of the earth, or even the polar ice caps melting—soon?

Clearly, there are a million and one things that could drive us absolutely insane if we worried about each of them constantly. Mercifully, however, there are things that we simply take for granted in living life. If we could not count on some things being constant, then we would go mad. Yet, in the wisdom of creation we can count on some or even many things. We can have confidence that, generally speaking, we can rely on the sun rising in the morning—and in the east—and we can assume that our hearts will continue beating rhythmically and regularly until our cardiologist tell us otherwise. It is these kinds of assumptions we make that constructs a life bearable and worth the living. When these “taken for granted” realities are no longer in force, then we are all in trouble.

Where does faith fit into this picture? Some people settled their questions about faith in God and life long ago in Sunday school. For some, belief in God is not something to question. The reason?
Once we begin asking the deep questions about God, then our whole world view begins to unravel like a ball of twine.
Indeed, the philosophical questions that life poses can so torture some people that they can literally go mad. The deeper mired in the questions these people become the nearer they move toward the edge of insecurity, anxiety, disbelief, all of which may eventually lead to insanity. Thus, is it better to just not ask? Our scripture seems to suggest that faith is far too important for people to take for granted. Although, in truth, avoiding difficult questions of meaning and value often makes life easier to swallow.

Aug 10, 2012

As We Begin Looking Toward Autumn

As we have completed the better part of a long hot summer in Arlington, Texas perhaps it is time to look forward to the fall of 2012. Fall or Autumn is not unlike the launching of new year in that we have a chance to begin anew. One way to begin anew is to look at several questions, the first being: “How is God at work here in our church and among our people?”

God is at work at FUMC of Arlington in the generous spirit of the people. One of the things I am most excited about as a pastor is the number of Bible studies and small groups being formed in the church during the school year of 2012–2013. In addition, each year our Confirmation class continues to grow and superb lay people and clergy-types work to impart our faith to an eager and large group of youngsters. For example, this year we confirmed nearly 50 teenagers. If you have questions about how to help with or sign up to be a part of our studies—or just need information about the classes—contact either Rev. Lancaster or check the church’s newly “born again” website.

Another question we might ask as we begin anew is: “Where have we been faithful to our vision and how can we sustain it?”

One of our visions is to continue to move toward becoming a truly competent and faithful teaching congregation. To that end, we now by most recent count have five (count ‘em—5) seminary students for the upcoming year from both Brite Divinity School at TCU and Perkins School of Theology at SMU. We are a congregation that grasps how to prepare and train people for ministry. It is an exciting prospect to have this kind of faith-responsibility as a mission and as a task. I hope you will seek out our seminary students and pray for them as you encourage them to become faithful and effective pastors.

One way to answer the question “Where is God leading us?” is to recognize that God is directing us to become a hub of lifelong education in Dallas-Tarrant County for not only seminary students, but also pastors and lay folks as well. We, as a church, will continue to offer high quality continuing education events, as our geographical placement in the hub of Dallas/Fort Worth affords us a strategic location to gather people in the Metroplex. Our emphasis of using our spiritual gift of teaching is both an honor and a contribution to the greater church.

We finally come to an all important question: “What is our vision for the church?”

Our vision for FUMC of Arlington is to continue to do the work to strengthen our congregation spiritually and in biblical knowledge for the changes that will surely come to our area of ministry in Arlington over the next few years. With a reported 2 billion dollars and perhaps much more in investment within three radial miles of our church site, the new life we will continue to see offers us many evangelistic opportunities. May our vision keep pace with God’s will for our community and may we be ready when the time is right and ripe for this new growth as we try to do what John Wesley meant when he spoke of “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.”

This perhaps can keep us busy until May 2013!

Aug 2, 2012

You Just Never Know...

A Sunday or two back, when I subbed preaching for Travis Franklin at FUMC, Salado Texas, I told a story to his congregation about how we are each called to be in ministry to others. “But how?” people like us are prone to ask. We all spend ample time and energy training ourselves and our churches to take care of those in crisis. The question is, where and when should we be ready to offer Christ to others? How do we know a crisis when we see one? Let me share what happened one day, all by accident.

“In the spring of the year, the time when preachers go out to golf” (2 Samuel 11:1), some preacher friends and I decided to go out to golf. We rarely had the opportunity for fellowship, as we were scattered throughout Central Texas—so we decided to play golf.

None of us was any good at golf—for we were not “really” golfers. However, we wanted to catch up on our lives and let our hair down a bit. On a golf course few people care about who is a preacher, thus we were just regular guys—and we were happy to be together and more or less—alone!!! We were alone, that is, until about the third hole, when Jim came out of the woods and joined us.

Jim was a much better golfer than we were, but evidently wanted some company. We confessed that we were preachers and were soon on our best behavior—no complaints about parishioners, budgets, and the work of ministry. We did not really mind the tag-along—except for Rev. Joe who was disappointed by the turn of events. Joe began to play badly as Jim hit one spectacular shot after another. Joe was on a slow boil. He kept saying under his breath, “We have one afternoon to ourselves and then ‘knuckle-head’ shows up. Why can’t we ever do anything by ourselves?”

Finally, on the 16th hole, I noticed Jim had a nice suntan and had said little. So I asked him if he had a job. He reluctantly told us that the doctors had diagnosed him with a rare inoperable brain tumor and what was the point of working. The doctors told him to make the best of the next six months because that was about all the time he had left.

We asked about his family. Didn’t he want to spend time with them? Jim confessed that his wife said she couldn’t “just sit around and watch him die,” so she and their children moved to California with her parents. Jim then said that he came to the golf course daily and tried to be with people. In fact, Jim had never played golf until the doctors gave him his bad news. Suddenly, our day of fun turned to an opportunity to do ministry. Jim ministered to us as it turned out.

I really felt sorry for Rev. Joe because usually he is the most compassionate person I know. This odd turn of events did show us, however, that we need not look far to find someone in need of community and the word of hope that Jesus provides. When God tells us to take authority, and we take it, we will surely find a use for it immediately. Jim minister to us, but we learned a lesson about being sensitive to the pain and isolation of others.

As Christians we do not need to look for people in crisis. They are already all around us. May we give God thanks for helping us with a task that is much bigger than we are!

Powered by Blogger