My last sermon at Covenant Baptist Church was on February 7, 2010. It was 20 years after the first sermon I preached for our community. I was the youth minister at the time, and the pastor was away. The only memory I have of that first sermon is a vague one. In my mind I can see the Duckblind Lounge, where we were meeting at that time.
An 18th-century painting of a Quaker meeting hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In it a figure, perhaps George Fox himself, stands speaking with such passion that his hand is clutching his breast. Around him are gathered members of the Society of Friends. A woman sits with her chin in her hand. A man’s finger is laid alongside his cheek.
It’s always wonderful when a new family joins our church. It’s easy for the congregation to feel that it’s fulfilling its calling, and easy for me to think that I’m being a good pastor. Of course, people also leave churches. I confess that over the years there have been a few people whose departure was a relief to me, but for the most part it is very sad when someone leaves our church, particularly since we are a small congregation, and every person’s absence is noted and deeply felt.
In January I went to New Orleans with the Protestant Cooperative Ministry of Cornell University to work on a Habitat for Humanity project. My wife, Jeanene, and I drove from San Antonio through Houston and on to New Orleans. As it turned out, our journey through Houston helped us to understand the work we were about to do. I grew up on the west side of Houston, 15 miles out Interstate 10, near Katy, Texas. Our exit had nothing more than a Shell station, a small grocery store and a few shops. There wasn’t much between Katy and Houston either, mostly open country and a few familiar roads. In the late '70s I drove into Houston regularly to visit friends and sack groceries in a little store near Kirkwood Street.
When A Banjara Indian woman named Mary came to our church to talk to us, nine-year-old Chloe was there. Chloe had to be there. We could not let Chloe miss a chance to meet a Banjara woman, because Chloe had been praying for the Banjara for four years.
What books compel a second—or third or fourth—reading? How is the second reading different from the first, and what does the difference reveal about the book or the reader? We asked ten writers, including Margaret Miles, Gordon Atkinson, Mary Doria Russell, Diana Butler Bass and David Cunningham, to name a book that they chose to reread, and to share their reactions "the second time around."
For the last couple of years our church community has been burrowing a path through the dense brush of our land. We’ve not been in a hurry; we don’t even know for certain where the path is going. We’ve tried to be as gentle as possible, avoiding more permanent plants and taking the direction that nature seems to be offering.
In January of this year I went to the Dominican Republic with Edge Outreach to install water purifiers. We were in the capital city of Santo Domingo. I was surprised to learn that the city does not provide clean water to its residents. Those who can afford it drink bottled water. Poor people drink the water from the tap and are frequently ill.
I preached a sermon this morning—one in a long line of sermons stretching back to 1992. I’ve preached so many sermons by now that I find it almost impossible to remember any particular one. Right now, on a Sunday night, I don’t want to remember any of them. The discipline of Sunday night is forgetting.
I saw my father preach the other day. His hair is now white, and the skin on his face has loosened with age, but this is the same man whose face I saw above the pulpit throughout my childhood. He stood like a captain in the bow of the ship that he loves, confident that the vessel would rise and fall with his voice and break the waves of human need as it sailed to the promised land.
There were two great, abiding mysteries in my life when I was a young boy; mysteries that I puzzled over for years but never solved. I discovered them while lying in bed trying to fall asleep. Bedtimes are convenient for adults but they may or may not align themselves with the sleep patterns of a child.
I love looking at old photographs; it’s the closest thing to time travel that I know. I find myself staring at century-old black and white photos taken on the streets of large cities. I look at the people. I search their faces, wondering what was going on in their minds. Often they are turning toward the camera—an item that was much less common then—with a shocked expression.
If you were extremely wealthy, you could try to see everything. You could hop into a car and zoom across the United States, stopping in major cities and seeing the famous sites. You could pay a cabbie to wait for you while you hurried to the top of the Empire State Building for a quick look.
In 1986, having been married to me only one year, my wife was casting about for an interesting birthday present. She wandered into a coin shop and found a case of coins from antiquity. She already knew me well enough to know that I would be fascinated by them. The owner didn’t know much about the coins, only that they were from Rome, and he was pretty sure that one of them dated from the time of Christ. That’s the one my wife bought.She was absolutely right about my reaction to this gift—I fell in love with this coin the minute I saw it. I couldn’t believe that I was holding something so old in my hands.
When I was young, the youth leader of our church would occasionally ask for someone to give a testimony during the worship service. All the kids would get quiet, shuffle their feet and squirm. For some reason I would feel the responsibility of the group shift slowly to my shoulders. The silence became more and more uncomfortable until at last I would give in and speak up.
I’ve been setting up chairs at our church since 1991. When I began, we were meeting in temporary places—a school, a fire station, and even a bar for a time. Setting up chairs and taking them down after worship is routine business for migrant churches.
The angel said, "Fear not."“Fear not” is one of the standard opening lines that angels use to calm humans when they meet them, but it rarely does any good, and it certainly didn’t do any good on this night. At the first sound coming from the angel’s mouth, all eight shepherds fell flat on their faces. They were shaking and clinging to the earth as if crawling back into the dust from which they came might save them this night.
In the spring of 2004, the serial killer known as BTK shocked experts around the world by reappearing after what were thought to be 20 years of dormancy. Because serial killers are almost always unable to stop killing once they start, it was assumed that BTK was either dead or in prison.