Through It, Not from It

When I pray for God to help me with a problem, I want Him to grab me and throw me on the other side of the problem. Then, I want to pick myself up, dust myself off, and run as far away from the problem as I can.

In my experience, God has never dealt with me that way. In fact, it’s been just the opposite.

Whenever I ask for God’s help with a problem, He takes me directly to the problem. We don’t avoid anything. By His leading and in His power, we are led to face our issues head on.

Let me give you an example.

Let’s say I have falling out with a friend. (I know, with my gentle personality you’re thinking this would never happen. Like I said, it’s just an example.) But let’s say it did happen.

And I pray, “Lord, help me restore my relationship with my friend.” I’m hoping Jesus will just give me a good feeling in my heart. You know, a deep warmness in my chest filled with good feelings toward my friend.

That’s not what happens. Nope, God will lead me to all kinds of situations where I will find myself with that friend. The Lord will then open the door for an honest conversation about our friendship, what happened, and how we move forward. And yes, it usually involves an apology from me. God won’t let me run from it. I can’t escape it. He forces me to deal with it.

It took me a long time to understand this, but I finally got it. Do you know why God does that? He does it so you never have to be afraid of it again. You’ve dealt with it. You’ve done what you needed to do and said what you needed to say. It’s over. You’re now free to move on.

Did you know there was an early teaching in the church that claimed God tricked Satan in the crucifixion and resurrection? The story goes that God promised Satan the body of Jesus in exchange for all of the souls of world, and then, at the last minute, He snatched Jesus back. Like I said, it was a heresy in the early church, but if Jesus only tricked death, then what happens the next time death finds us?

No, the good news of the gospel is that Christ defeated death. That’s why we don’t have to be afraid of death anymore. The battle’s been fought. The victory has been won by Jesus. It’s over.

The Hebrew children went through the Red Sea, not around it. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death, not close by it. In each moment, God in Christ Jesus saves us through it, not from it.

That way, we never have to be afraid. We can move on. It’s over. That’s why Jesus always saves us through it, but never from it.

Can These Bones Live?

When I was little boy, I went to a small mill village church in Huntsville Alabama. Our pastor, Reverend G.D. Barrett was a gifted preacher. I think it was listening to him that made me want to become a preacher. He could paint a picture with his words that forced you to do something. After all, you just couldn’t listen to a sermon like that and then walk away as if nothing had happened. I joke with my friends that if “Brother Barrett” preached on hell, your clothes smelled like smoke at the end of the sermon.

His best sermon was from Ezekiel 37, the story of dry bones. Do you remember it? God takes Ezekiel to the place of a famous battle where the bones of the fallen soldiers had been left to bleach in the sun. God asks the prophet, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I can still remember sitting on the wooden pews of Huntsville Park Baptist Church and being mesmerized by the story of the bones of dead people becoming a crowded congregation.

I hadn’t thought about that sermon until a few years ago. One day, I was reading the paper when I noticed several church buildings for sale. I’m a sucker for sacred spaces, so seeing these ads was particularly painful for me. I had noticed this trend before. Church sanctuaries and cathedrals are being converted all over the world. They are taking these sacred structures and turning them into upscale restaurants, condominiums, and office buildings. I don’t blame the people for buying these buildings. They are beautiful structures.

I just hate seeing churches sold. I especially hate seeing them sold in Middle Tennessee.

Now, understand. These churches are being sold by a group of people who are sure no one will come to a group of people who are sure someone will come if there’s something different in the building.

Why can’t a new church be what’s different in the building?

That’s why the revitalization of churches in transition is one of the major efforts of the Middle Tennessee Initiative. There are several advantages to this approach.

The church facilities are still in a good location. True, the neighborhoods around the church have changed, but there are still people around the church. Most of the time, there are a lot of people around the church. Perhaps a different ethnic group has moved in. Maybe a different language group has moved in, but there are still people who need to hear the gospel.

This new neighborhood may not match the old membership of the church. (Most of the time, it’s Caucasians driving in from the suburbs to the old home church. Not always, but most of the time.) If the church can seize the challenge of the new opportunity, the church can be restored to a vital and kingdom-impacting ministry. Yes, it probably means a new pastor and a new staff, but the church can stay alive.

Second, working with a church like this means you have a ready-made facility to use. Sure, there are usually some upgrades that have to be installed, but this can be done for nickels on the dollar. For one thing, you’d never be able to find the land, and second, who can afford a building with stained glass windows?

Third, the neighborhood is usually glad to welcome a new congregation because the church adds value to the neighborhood…or it should anyway. The facility is painted and repaired. The grounds are kept neat and trimmed. People are coming in and out. There’s life in the neighborhood.

We’ve seen it happen again and again. A church that was down to 25 or so members explodes to a weekly attendance of well over 100 and sometimes 200 or more! The looks on the original members’ faces when they hear babies crying in their worship services is priceless.

The last thing about revitalizing churches is you never run out of things to do. There’s always another church, always another people group that needs to be reached, always another challenge. We’re never bored.

But how good it is to see our God work. To stand like Ezekiel and look at the valley of dry bones and hear God say, “Son of man can these bones live?”

I love being able to answer, “Yes, Lord, these bones can live. We’ve seen You do it before.”

38 Reasons

Today, Jeannie and I will celebrate our 38th anniversary. On June 14, 1980, Jeannie and I exchanged our vows. I was in love with her before we got married, and every day since, I have fallen deeper in love with her. So, for our 38th anniversary, I thought I’d give you 38 reasons why I love her.

  1. She has the prettiest brown eyes I’ve ever seen.
  2. She’s one of the few people that can make me laugh until coffee comes out of my nose.
  3. She’s a great mother to my sons.
  4. She’s a great grandmother to our granddaughters.
  5. Everyone likes me better when they meet her.
  6. She learned to say, “Roll, Tide, Roll.”
  7. She cooks a homemade lasagna and a homemade cheesecake every year for my birthday.
  8. She loved my parents, and now, she does a great job taking care of my mom.
  9. She raised our sons to take care of themselves. Both of our sons are neat freaks. They didn’t get that from me.
  10. She crinkles her nose like a little girl when she laughs.
  11. She prays for me.
  12. She won’t take any junk from me.
  13. She’s a fierce protector of our sons.
  14. She thinks our granddaughters are “dress up dolls” and buys countless outfits for them. Then, she’ll dress and undress each granddaughter just to see “how she looks in the outfit.”
  15. When she’s angry her eyes turn coal black.
  16. She looks great in jeans.
  17. She looks great all dressed up.
  18. She hums when she’s doing chores around the house.
  19. She tries to make me eat right.
  20. She modeled for our boys the kind of woman they should look for. Each of our sons married girls who had characteristics they liked best about their mom.
  21. She’s my best friend. Life isn’t as much fun if she’s not there to share it with me.
  22. She indulges my quirks.
  23. She has her own view of the world that challenges my assumptions about “how things should be.”
  24. She’s kind.
  25. She insists that I be kind.
  26. She brings beauty into my life.
  27. She takes care of our money.
  28. She makes sure we stay in contact with our friends.
  29. She knows when I need to be quiet and protects my time.
  30. She makes sure I get enough rest.
  31. She holds me accountable on my calendar planning and won’t let me over commit.
  32. She loves and ministers to the wives of our pastoral team.
  33. Our boys still call her when they’re sick.
  34. She brings color to my wardrobe. She won’t tolerate jeans and black polo shirts.
  35. She’s brutally honest.
  36. She loves the beach.
  37. She loves to read.
  38. She keeps me fascinated.

Okay, I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there. Let me add this before I leave: the biggest mistake of my life was not marrying Jeannie sooner. I really can’t imagine my life without her. Happy Anniversary, Jeannie! I love you!

Why I Reached Out to Bishop Walker

Bishop Joseph Walker III is one of the most impactful leaders and pastors in North America today. His books, social media engagement, and demanding preaching schedule have spread his influence from coast to coast. He’s funny, energetic, has a faith that’s been tested by fire, and he’s seriously committed to changing Nashville for the better with the power of God’s redeeming gospel.

He’s also one of my best friends. He’s also African American.

When people find out about our friendship, they want to know how we came to be friends, and honestly, when I tell them the story, they are a little disappointed.

It all started with a phone call. I called him. I wanted him to teach me about how he was using social media. If you follow Bishop Walker at all, you know he’s a social media ninja. He’s a master of using a variety of platforms to communicate his message to thousands of people—including Bible studies and prayer times that engage people from around the world.

I’m always looking for people who do things better than I do, and Bishop Walker did social media better than most people in America, especially me. I was hoping he could teach me a few things. We ended up meeting at a local Panera Bread, and we talked about how social media supported his ministry and expanded his preaching. Then, we talked about life, marriage, and what it meant to be a dad in these times. We talked about sports and politics, and before I knew it, we had become friends.

Then, we started talking about what it is like being black in Nashville. He tried to help me understand the systemic racism he and his congregation face every day. Nashville is a fairly progressive city. Our diverse culture of artists ensures that, but we’re still racist. Some things take a long time to address and heal. Racism is one of those things.

He told me how, when’s he’s leaving a local mall and finds himself walking behind a single white female, he will measure his steps so he doesn’t get too close to her and make her uncomfortable. The woman will be nervous and anxious when she realizes a black man is walking behind her in the parking lot. He’s learned to make sure there’s plenty of room between him and her. He gets pulled over if he’s in certain neighborhoods in his nice car. Why? Because it’s assumed that a black man in a nice car is selling drugs.

These experiences are true. These are the moments my friend has lived.

I’ve had him over to talk to my staff about racism in everyday life. My staff is still talking about the power of his testimony and teaching. Since then, our two churches have become partners. Mt. Zion and Brentwood Baptist have done several projects together. His friendship and grace have made our engagement easy and rewarding. His church is teaching my church how to do ministry better. We’re learning from each other and growing together.

As a result, several of our members have become friends with members of Mt. Zion. They’ve met for lunch. They’ve had dinner in each other’s homes. We’re learning about each other’s worlds and pulling them closer together.

I’m convinced more than ever that the church is going to have to take the lead in the task of racial reconciliation. Only the church has the message of forgiveness, the salve of grace, the gospel of a suffering Savior, and the power of His resurrection. The total gospel in all of its glory will be needed to address and heal racism in America.

I didn’t start out wanting to address the race issue in our nation. I wanted to know more about social media. I did learn about social media.

And I learned a lot more. I learned how subtle and devious racism can be in our country. I learned how this hurts our black brothers and sisters, and I have learned that sitting silently while this is going on is to be part of the problem. I can no longer be part of anything that hurts my brother.

You know my brother, don’t you? Bishop Joseph Walker III. When you see us together, you’ll be able to tell us apart. I’m taller.