The Mightiest Muscle

A friend expressed disapproval of a project lately and I began to question him to better understand his thoughts. But he cut me off with, “I’m not going to argue about it.” I wasn’t planning on arguing either, but because I was puzzled I wanted to hear more of his logic.

At least I wasn’t as aggressive as the irrepressible Ann Coulter. On a talk show once her nemesis said, “There’s no use to argue with me. I’m correct.” To which Ms. Coulter responded, “I’m not arguing. I’m attacking!”

King Solomon counseled centuries ago that “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). I’ve found this good advice over the years. My natural inclination is to respond in kind when someone uses harsh words or actions, including harsh driving! But the situation can be defused when calmer spirits prevail. The apostle Peter exhorted us not to return evil for evil, thus perpetuating evil. He exhorted that we return good for evil and stop the cycle of evil in its tracks (1 Peter 3:9). The same is true for our words.

However, there is a time to speak unvarnished truth. For example, the experience of our first lady Betty Ford as she struggled with alcohol and prescription drugs popularized the intervention. This method is commonly followed today when friends or family are trapped in addictive behavior. The intervention is done with concern but without hesitancy. I’ve known parents who had to practice tough love with additive children to shock them out of bad life choices.

Pastors sometimes feel compelled to speak unvarnished truth. My generation remembers the segregated South. As a boy I saw the “white” and “colored” restrooms and water coolers. As a man I saw hard racial attitudes among believers in Christ. A racist man once observed he understood I couldn’t preach on brotherly love without someone seeing racial overtones.  I preached on brotherly love then, and still do. The 60s “Jesus movement” song said it well, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

But I also remember going to the pulpit a few times with anger instead of compassion. I’m not sure how effective it was for me to raise my voice and scold the congregation when only one or two people had angered me. I always regretted this afterwards. The apostle Paul insisted we’re to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Sometimes Christians must, as we say, “agree to disagree.” I might say to a brother or sister, “I don’t think your opinion is correct, but I hear you. I value you as a co-worker in Christ.”

The tongue has been called the body’s mightiest muscle. We need God’s wisdom to exercise it properly.

On Being Gracious To One Another

I heard about a presumably wealthy Texas cattle ranch owner who boasted about his holdings. When asked how he got such a big ranch, he replied that he bought up a bunch of smaller ranches and made them into one bigger ranch. He said he kept the names and made the new ranch a composite of them all. Thus he owned the "Lazy J Rolling S Mighty Texas Bar Seven Triple L Buffalo Nickel" cattle ranch.

"Well, how many head of cattle do you own?" his friend asked.

"Only seven," he replied. "I had a lot more but most of 'em didn't survive the branding!"

I often remember this story as we approach football season and see how some fans take something that's supposed to be fun and turn it into a shouting match with friends and acquaintances. One friend told me they had an "Alabama/Auburn" night at their summer revival and it turned into a disaster! Apparently people focused on the red and orange more than they focused on repentance.

One pastor customarily cautioned people on the Sunday before the Iron Bowl to be kind to one another on the Sunday following. It would seem this would be unnecessary to say, but I've followed suit and usually say this myself come November.

This fall is fraught with another peril since it's election season. Candidates on both sides have said regrettable things, and some who support them have said some regrettable things, too. I just returned from a political items collectors convention where my conservatism was a target of some barbed comments, so I had to simply smile sweetly and press on.

I suppose the world will always be full of such kind of conflict. It's sad, however, when this kind of division creeps into the church.

We lived in another county years ago. A local congregation, St. John's Church, got unwanted publicity when several public brawls broke out in the congregation and were reported in the local press. A new pastor came who chided his people somewhat sternly that if they were named for the Apostle John, the apostle of love, they must live like it.

John wrote, "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death" (1 John 3: 14).

And John recorded the lord of the church himself who said, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15: 12). Everyone has their football favorites and a political party they support. This is America and wehave freedom to do so. But let's remember we're Americans first. And Christians most of all.

The Me Too Movement

Kevin was minister of education in a church I served. He’d often say pastors and musicians get accolades after worship services, such as “Thanks for the wonderful sermon,” and “Thanks for the beautiful music.” But in contrast, church members would tell Kevin which toilets needed repairing.

I thought about Kevin a few weeks ago when a lady stopped me before a mid-week service to tell me there was a wad of paper in a toilet I needed to check. I promptly forgot and went on to other things, and then a second lady approached me with the same news. In my present mission station, I don’t have a minister of education to call when the toilets need repair. Before I could  check it, one of the ladies fished the paper out of the toilet herself and proudly came to tell me she’d been successful. I thanked her and laughingly asked if she’d call the pastor if this happened at home!

One doesn’t have to be an ordained preacher or a singer to serve God. All Christians are called to serve in some unique way. Martin Luther said, “A milk maid can milk cows to the glory of God.”

I think of my dad who loved his church, but never felt he could teach or sing. He turned down deacon nominations every year believing himself unworthy of the honor. But he spent many afternoons at the church replacing glass, repairing toilets and doing minor electrical repairs. His service was necessary.

I think of a lady in another church who had an unelected, yet important, job. She policed the sanctuary after the morning worship by discarding trash and chewing gum wrappers (!), straightening hymnals and saving reusable bulletins. She said, “I love to do it and I believe God is pleased.” Her service was necessary.

Countless others over the years have had glad and generous hearts to contribute to God’s work. They have given their money to support the work of the gospel, and they’ve given their time to staff the benevolent ministries of their church. I’ve frequently noted that most ministry in the church isn’t done in the spotlight. The pastor and musicians are in the spotlight. But most ministry is done in the shadows. It’s done in love because there’s a need, and the laborers aren’t looking for public acclaim.

The ancient prophet Isaiah is honored among the prophets because he wasn’t a reluctant servant of the Lord. He didn’t run from the call of God like Jonah or complain like Jeremiah. He volunteered for service. “Here am I, Lord. Send me,” he said (Isaiah 6: 8).

Every Christian ought to follow Isaiah’s example and say, “Me too, Lord.”

Remembering With Gratitude

It was a trip down memory lane when I determined to spend a little time in the loveliest village on the plains. I’d not been to Auburn in a while, so en route to Georgia I took a slight detour and visited the campus. After graduating from Samford, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in communications. Auburn offered the program I liked. This was a fortuitous decision since I made my living for 15 years teaching speech and journalism and have been an adjunct in half a dozen other schools over the years.

I discovered the sixth floor of Haley Center no longer houses Communications. It’s now the Foreign Languages department. And the tiny office I had as a graduate teaching assistant is now the copy room. It was interesting to see food trucks in the area around Haley—an innovation we didn’t have in my day.

An innovation we did have was The Streak. Ray Steven’s song was released when I was at Auburn, and we had a campus streaker who ran through the Haley quad several times wearing a ski mask and not much more. The campus newspaper, “The Plainsman,” interview Mr. Streak without revealing his identity. I was never sure what he was trying to do other than fulfill a fraternity prank.

A Samford friend from nearby Chambers County told me his home church needed a pastor, and he put me in contact with his dad who was one of he deacons. I served the Cusseta Baptist Church as pastor for the 18 months I was in grad school. I remember with fondness the wonderful people who listened to me and encouraged me during that time.

One unique facet of Southern Baptist life is that we don’t have a denominational apprentice program or a bishop to follow our progress and assign responsibilities. Young men (98 percent of Southern Baptist pastors are male) declare their call to ministry and in many cases are thrust into the work immediately. I read about a pastor lately who took the pulpit at age 17. I hope he was more profound than me when I preached my first sermons. My simple sermons were hardly stimulating!

But I remember with gratitude God’s grace and the peoples’ prayers. Faithful church members encourage their young ministers and are patient with us. They know we don’t become old and wise without first being young and dumb!

The older I get the more I realize my indebtedness to wonderful Christians who helped me along the way. And I realize more the enduring value of God’s work. The old adage is yet true: “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”