What About Autographing The Bible?

The recent tornado in Lee County, Alabama, was devastating with 23 lives lost—several in a single family. How sad that things changed for these residents in such a short time.

U.S. presidents are expected to make appearances following disasters in order to boost morale. We remember President Obama touring Tuscaloosa with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley in 2011. Likewise, President and Mrs. Trump visited the Auburn area to survey damage and offer encouragement.

The president received criticism for autographing a few Bibles on his visit. He didn’t choose to but was requested to do so by attendees at Providence Baptist Church. According to the AP a young person thrust a Bible into the president’s hands and asked him to sign, and others followed suit. The same story reported a few religious leaders outraged that someone other than the author would sign and claiming the president was “courting” his evangelical base in this way.

Theologians call the original biblical manuscripts “the autographs”—the documents written and  “signed” by Peter, Paul, Moses and others. Evangelicals usually don’t believe it’s disrespecting the original writers to sign Bibles; rather we see it as a way to encourage one another.

One of my boyhood heroes was the Chaplain of Bourbon Street, Bob Harrington. He was a dynamic Christian preacher who was recognized for his ministry in the French Quarter while a student at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. I loved to hear Harrington preach, and probably knew his testimony from memory. He often signed Bibles, as he did for me, with the inscription, “Gratefully saved.” 

I have a Bible signed by the prince of Southern Baptist preachers, W.A. Criswell. Criswell served First Baptist Dallas, Texas for 40 years. He loved young preachers and often took a moment to sign a word of encouragement in our Bibles.

The Bible I most often use in the pulpit was given by a friend in 1980, and his dedication signature is in the foreword.

My ordination Bible is also signed by my pastor at the time.

The Carter Political Items Collectors group I’m a member of has an annual convention in Plains, Ga. We often have Jimmy Carter-signed items in our auctions, including Bibles and other Bible study materials. The auction benefits the Maranatha Baptist Church where the Carters attend.

Another church I served gave a music minister a Bible when he went away to school. He passed it around and asked us to sign our names by our favorite scripture passage as a memento.

The president himself owns a Bible inscribed by Billy Graham.

I think we shouldn’t criticize Bible signing, unless perhaps at a political event. Mr. Trump simply gave his time to encourage hurting people.

Open The Door

The British artist, Holman Hunt, produced a painting in 1853 that hangs today in the chapel at Oxford University. It’s called “Jesus the Light of the World,” and portrays Jesus knocking on a door with no visible latch while holding a lantern in his other hand. Hunt based his painting on the word of Christ in Revelation 3: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if any man will hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and dine with him and he with me” (v. 20).

“I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good subject,” Hunt said. “The door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore be opened only from the inside, representing the obstinately shut mind.”

The painting has been updated by many artists over the years, while keeping the main idea of Mr. Hunt that Jesus calls out and knocks desiring entrance into our lives.I can imagine that this verse, and this image, have been used by most of us evangelical preachers  when we implore men and women to open the door of their hearts and allow Jesus to do his work of regeneration. Whether we call it “being saved,” “obeying the gospel” or being “born again,” the idea remains the same. Jesus, a gentleman, will not storm his way into our lives. He comes by personal invitation where he’s welcomed.

However, the sobering original word in Revelation is directed to the church of Laodicea. How striking to think of Jesus outside his church, knocking and wanting to come in. What an indictment that worship might not include the Lord of the church!

Worship has nothing to do with noise, although some well-intentioned pastors see themselves as cheerleaders. “Let all the world keep silence” is in the Bible, too (Habakkuk 2:20). Nor does meaningful worship necessarily mandate movement. A popular cartoon a dozen years ago portrayed an usher asking two newcomers, “Clapping, or non-clapping?” I suppose for many of our congregations this issue has been settled, but now some churches encourage “liturgical movement,” or dancing while singing hymns. While this is a matter for individual congregations to decide, the old adage is true: “It’s not how high we jump, but how straight we walk when we hit the ground”!

Inviting Jesus into our churches is actually surrender to his will in all things. We must never close the door on the Lord of the church by doing what we think best. He’s the head of the body, his church, and we must always seek his will and his honor in what we do (Ephesians 5:23).

On God's Will

Someone took me to task for what I thought was a harmless quip. In a tongue-in-cheek article about how we Baptists “steal” pastors from one another, I remarked that though it’s a flawed system, God seems to help us through it most of the time.

“God helps us all the time!” someone responded.

Yes, I understand, but I know also that we frequently sidestep the will of God and mess things up.

A good example of this was a church in one of the Carolinas. A friend found the story and sent me the two newspaper copies years ago. A noted pastor from Texas announced with great fanfare it was God’s will for him to move from his flourishing church to a new ministry on the East coast. He said he had no doubts God was leading him to a new and even more flourishing ministry. In less than two weeks he announced it was God’s will that he return to his former church. The story didn’t explain any precipitating causes, nor what negotiations occurred with the former church that would bring about his return.

My friend who sent me this story, a great mentor, was exhorting me to exercise caution in labeling everything God’s will. In this case it’s alledged God changed his mind!

I know a similar story firsthand since I knew the pastor quite well. He announced his move to Louisville to attend the same Baptist seminary I attended believing it was God’s will. He remained one week before convincing his former church to take him back as their pastor!

The prophet Jeremiah spoke God’s displeasure with false prophets who say “he says” when the Lord didn’t speak (Jeremiah 23: 31). We need to seek his will, to be sure, but it’s often best to say we believe a matter to be the Lord’s will if we’re still working our way through it. And it’s helpful to ask for the insights of others as we test our thoughts (1 Corinthians 14: 32).

Some Christians believe in the reform doctrine that everything that happens to us is due to the active and deliberate plan of God. Whereas I respect their belief, I’m of the Arminian mindset, believing God gives us freedom to choose, and often we make some really bad choices. We see people all the time using tobacco, spurning their marriage vows, texting and driving and being reckless in other ways on the road. When these people hurt themselves or others, I really don’t believe it is God’s will. It’s his will that we exercise better judgment. God helps us if we let him.

Fortunately, he’s a merciful God who can mend the bad choices we make.

What About Money?

He was a long-time church member and a “seasoned citizen” as Rush Limbaugh would say. He came to see me when I’d been at his church for only a short time.

“We have some wealthy members here, and other pastors have cultivated their friendships because we need their money,” he explained. “I  hope you’ll do the same.”

I smiled sweetly, but in my heart of hearts I thought, “I hope I never base friendship on someone’s check book balance!

One of those wealthy members did become a good friend. He invited me to tell him privately about special needs he might help with, and I did. He had a heart for children and sent scores of young people to summer camp. No one every  knew about this except me and him. Later I had the sad duty of conducting his funeral and tried to say some kind words about him.

I’ve had other church friends with no money. One called lately to announce there wasn’t a “crumb of food” in his house. We were able to handle this privately and discreetly.

Money is important in the church. Most everything we do requires it and we have to have it.

My tact has been different from some of my fellow pastors. One of them forthrightly told me, “I preach on money all the time. If people get their hearts right about money everything else will work out.”

I tend to believe money is a by-product of spiritual growth; that is, if we get our hearts right, then honoring God with our money won’t be an issue. I preached a sermon on money last December after realizing I’d not mentioned money in months.

Churches have different opinions on reporting, too. A current practice is to include all salaries in one budget line item. The stated reason is not to embarrass anyone by publicizing their salary, and also to use money to deal privately with work performance.

My mentor was the late Dotson Nelson of Mountain Brook Baptist Church in Birmingham. When his finance team moved to lump salaries into one-line item, he refused to let his salary be included.

“I’m the editor of the Sunday bulletin,” he said. “If you don’t publish my salary, then I’ll print it every Sunday!”

His reasoning was that the pastor’s salary is the first thing people look at in the annual budget and he wanted to be transparent. Our church follows this practice and my salary is known to all.

Money can be an issue of controversy in our churches. I think we must encourage people to grow financially, as well as spiritually, to the glory of God. And churches need to be accountable in spending, too.