Monday, December 21, 2009

Just One Sermon

Laying in bed the other night I was going over the events & highlights of 2009. Two new grandchildren joined the family. A daughter & son-in-law graduated from college and moved a little closer to home. I thought about a lot of the good things that happened this year.

In the midst of those good things I was blessed to experience, another thought came to mind: I had only preached just one sermon in 2009. Never in my adult life had I been so absent from a pulpit. It was not for a lack of interest or desire. My heart is still there. It was not for a lack of willingness. I had tried to make my availability known. It most definitely is not because "I quit the ministry." It was simply a lack of opportunity to do what I know to be a God-given compulsion to preach, even as Paul noted in I Cor. 9:16.

My mind took me back to the only occasion I had to be in the pulpit in this last year. A friend in ne NC had called me and asked if I'd fill in while their preacher was out of town. I remember being a little surprised at the request because northeast NC is not a place I've been particularly welcome in the last 6 years or so. And some there, to be sure, are happy I'm not preaching these days. But I said I'd come and preach for them. It took me just a moment to recall the text and topic of the day. I preached about "Giant Problems," looking at the episode of David & Goliath in 1 Sam. 17. The day was hot and as I recall the A/C had gone out in the church, and the crowd that did attend seemed restless & uncomfortable, but they sat through the service and the sermon.

Have you ever wondered what you'd preach for your last sermon, or if you thought it might be the only sermon you would get to preach? At the time I didn't know it would be my only sermon of 2009 (and 2010 isn't looking any brighter for opportunities at the moment either). What would you say if you had but one opportunity to share God's Word?

I immediately thought of the cross of Christ. Paul said he preached "Christ and Him crucified," in 1 Cor. 2:1, 2). I thought about the necessity of knowing our need to be saved; God's desire to save us; and how we can be saved. I believe the greatest need of man is knowing these facts. Over the course of previous years I know that I've often strayed into other areas than these, things of great importance such as Church leadership; other areas of Biblical Doctrines; matters of the Second Coming, etc. I pray that I've not strayed from the truth, or lost sight of the issues of primary importance in our relationship to God.

I found the sermon I preached in 2009 and looked at the main points: (1) Giant problems are a fact of life; (2) Don't be intimidated; (3) Trust God to solve Giant Problems; and (4) God's solutions Are Much Better. It was not until the conclusion that I mentioned that "The promise of Scripture is that God is greater than our problems, the biggest of which is sin. Jesus has defeated that giant enemy and offers us the opportunity to share in that victory." I'm thinking my points were on-target; and my applications were Bible-based. But was my conclusion emphasized more than the familiar story of a young man with five smooth stones and a sling going against a giant of a man? What, if anything, did my audience take home with them that day from the 25 or so minutes I had to preach in 2009? It makes me wonder.

I've actually heard many sermons in 2009. Sadly, I couldn't tell you much about what I heard; recall important points; or "borrow" many worthwhile illustrations.

Who knows about 2010? What sermons will make an impact, or which ones will be soon forgotten? What content will be trendy, entertaining, and socially relevant? What content will lead sinners to the throne of grace?

Time will tell if I preach again or not. If that privilege presents itself, I will consider more carefully my topic, my passage, my study, my illustrations, and my applications. To the ones who regularly share the Gospel I'd urge them to consider anew, what would you preach if you could only preach just one sermon?

C'mon, Murphy. Let's go outside.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What I Learned In Prison - Part 2

Do you remember being called to the Principal's office? That voice which came through the classroom speaker that said, "Please send this student to the office" could make your heart sink with impending doom. Generally it was never a good thing to have your name announced over the loud speaker at school.

The Chaplain's voice over the prison PA system did the same thing. Being summoned to the Chaplain's office often meant there was bad news to be delivered. The Chaplain would be called by an inmate's family to inform him of a death or other news of an emergency nature. I took the information down, called the inmate, and shared that piece of news with them.

I learned quickly that many families of inmates do not accept calls from them because of the high cost of "collect" calls. Families would block their numbers. The only way some inmates communicated, when they did communicate, was through visits or letters. It was not unusual for inmates to go months at a time without hearing from their family.

But when the bad news came I was able to be helpful to them. I'd use my office phone so they could call their families and get the news "first hand." In a minimum custody facility I also had the ability to make it possible for the inmate to attend the funeral of close family members (typically only spouse, parents or children). They would be transported to the funeral, wear "street clothes," sit with their families, and then return at the conclusion of the service. (Although more than once I heard that the transporting officers let them stay for the meal at the church if there was one!) The family paid $50 to the State of NC for this service.

These emergency calls seemed to run hot and cold. I went weeks at a time without getting one, but when they came - they usually came all at once and I was filling out an ABUNDANCE of paperwork for each temporary release. But I could tell it meant a great deal for the inmate to be able to attend these funerals. And when circumstances prevented them from attending they at least had a good long conversation, courtesy of North Carolina, with their loved ones.

It had been one of those busy times of relaying bad news, grief counseling, and seeing if they could be released for the service when the phone rang. The woman on the other end told me her name and that her brother was an inmate, and that she had news for him. He was a new father! Finally some good news to share! I got all the news and pertinent information. I asked the baby's name, how big he was, how he was doing, everything I could think to relay to the inmate.

So I was excited to call the inmate to the office. I didn't know him, and when he came in he had that look of 'impending doom' on his face that I was going to ruin his day. But I said, "This is a good call for you." I told him, "your sister called and wanted to tell you that you're a brand new daddy." I told him everything I learned, the name, weight, good condition, etc. The man just sat there with what could only be described as a 'blank' look on his face. After I was done sharing what I thought was pretty good news, giving him something to look forward to, etc. he looked at me and asked, "Chaplain, did my sister tell you who the baby's mother was?"

I was stunned. I had to process that question for a minute! Then I was irritated. "I thought you would know that!" I said.

Nope, no clue. Big question mark written all over "playa's" face

I was to learn that all of his children (emphasis on ALL of his children) were by different women, and that this was the second child born to him while he had been locked up.

Whether he ever chose to find out who the mother of his child was remains a mystery to me. Whether his son will ever know his dad and have a positive relationship with him seems doubtful at best. Will that son grow up in his father's footprints and one day be locked up himself? It does seem a continuing cycle.

Family values are far more than a campaign slogan, or a talking point for community organizers. I was reminded in that situation what an awesome responsibility - and privilege - it is to be a parent. It is easy to pro-create, but the task of parenting and raising a child is demanding. Churches need to emphasize the qualities and characteristics of a Godly mom and dad. We need to model those qualities to young men and women who will learn much about the mechanics of sex, but little about the responsibilities that come with it.