Precious in the Sight of the Lord

Allan's Journey, Death, Ministry, Preaching, Teenagers 2 Comments »

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” ~Psalm 116:15

I know he didn’t tell me every week. It wasn’t even every month. Couldn’t have been. But it was frequent. It was many times over the course of my childhood and into my high school years. Jim Martin, the head elder (I know there’s no such thing) at my church in southeast Dallas, was emphatic when he told me. I remember him telling me while we were standing on the brown speckled industrial tile in the hallway down the classroom wing of the Pleasant Grove Church of Christ. He told me out in the church parking lot. He told me near the front of the auditorium right after worship services. I feel like he told me all the time. And he meant it.

“Allan, if you’ll go to preaching school, I’ll pay for your tuition.”

Of course, he was talking about the Sunset or Preston Road schools of preaching. At the time, I didn’t have much of an idea about money or how much that kind of an education might cost. I knew Sunset was in Lubbock, somewhere out in West Texas, a million miles from Big D. I had been to several graduations at Preston Road as our church financially supported students there every year. Those things, though, didn’t really matter. I didn’t want to be a preacher. I couldn’t imagine being a preacher. I wanted Brad Sham’s job doing radio play-by-play for the Cowboys.

Jim — sorry; he was always “Brother Martin” — was a giant in my home church. In my mind, he stood taller even than his six-foot-four frame. He was a Bible class teacher, a song leader, and an elder in our congregation. He was always standing in front of the church. Teaching. Leading us in worship. Leading us in prayer. Baptizing. Announcing important decisions. He was our home and auto insurance guy, a successful businessman with his own office on Buckner Boulevard. I never saw him without a coat and tie. In every setting, he carried himself in a deliberate and professional manner. For these and many other reasons I always looked up to Jim.

My sister, Rhonda, and I found some of his mannerisms… umm… humorous. He wore his pants almost a little too high; not quite “above the navel” as Matthew McConaughey’s character says in “Bernie,” but still a little too high. When he sat down on that little short pew on the stage in-between songs on Sunday mornings, his pants legs would rise up incredibly high. His cuffs would be almost at his knees. And, to our constant amazement, so did his socks! We always privately assumed his socks were somehow connected to his underwear. We could perfectly imitate the way he led singing, his right arm extended with barely any crook at all in the elbow and his middle finger on that right hand dipped slightly below the others. The way he paused a little too long between the first and second words of a lot of songs. “When….. …. …. I survey the wondrous cross.” For some reason, Jim pronounced “dollars” as “dah-lahs,” like he was from London or something. We imagined he mowed the lawn and changed the oil in his cars wearing his slacks and wing tips.

He and my dad were best friends. They sang together, taught Bible class together, and served together as shepherds at P-Grove. Jim and Polly Martin were at our house a lot when we were kids and we spent a lot of time at their place on Alhambra Street. On those rare occasions when we got to eat lunch at Wyatt’s Cafeteria after church, it seems the Martins were always there with us. Jim and my dad were equals in almost every sense of the term — including most of their quirkiest mannerisms — but Jim was older. My dad asked for and highly valued Jim’s opinions and insights. He talked about Jim a lot. He looked up to Jim. And that was huge for me. Jim always seemed very important to me. And, looking back, a big part of that is probably because I sensed my dad looking up to Jim, too.

When Brother Martin told me I could preach and that he would pay for my training, he was telling me two things:  One, that preaching the Word of God was really, really important — maybe even more important than selling insurance; and, two,  that he believed in me, he really believed in me.

Jim and Polly’s daughter, Becky, and her husband Glen were our youth ministers at the Pleasant Grove church when we didn’t have youth ministers. Glen hired me to work at his roofing company the summer before my sophomore year in high school. He taught me how to drive a stick shift. He taught me how not to cut ridge with a Skil saw. He taught me a lot of things. For a period of four or five years I spent more time at Glen and Becky’s house than I did my own. I bought my first car when I was sixteen: a long, white 1974 Monte Carlo with a burgundy Landau top. I paid for it with roofing money. Bought the insurance policy from Jim Martin with roofing money. When I was re-baptized over Thanksgiving break of my senior year in college, it was Jim Martin who buried me with Christ. And when I finally decided to leave sports radio to enter a full time congregational preaching ministry, I called my parents. And then I called Jim Martin. He expressed to me his great delight upon hearing that news. And he told me God was going to use me to expand his Kingdom.

Jim died Sunday evening at 85 years of age. He was surrounded by his family, forgiven by his Savior, and wrapped in the loving arms of his God.

My dad and I talked on the phone together about Jim late Sunday night. A number of us preachers in Texas and around the Southwest who have been personally blessed by Jim’s son, Jimmy Martin, have been exchanging emails and texts. Rhonda and I shared some really funny stories and a few tears together on the phone yesterday. Throughout our childhood, Jim and Polly Martin were always there helping and encouraging. During our most formative years, Glen and Becky were always there helping and encouraging. For the entire seven years of my preaching ministry, Jimmy Martin has been right by my side helping and encouraging. There has never been a time in my life — all 47 years — when Jim Martin and his children were not involved in supporting me and encouraging me.

I’ve written all this —- and I could very easily keep going — to say this: encourage the young people in your church. Tell them you believe in them. Tell them how talented they are, how blessed by God they are. Tell them all the dreams you have for them, all the great things you see for them. Help the kids in your church and encourage them. You have been ordained by God to play an important role in molding and shaping young preachers and ministers, future missionaries and teachers of the Gospel. One word of encouragement to a child can carry her or him for years. One sentence of blessing to a teenager can last maybe for a lifetime.

It’s been sixteen or seventeen years since I’ve been inside the Pleasant Grove church building. My siblings and I all left P-Grove as soon as we could. And so did most everybody else. Our parents retired and moved to East Texas in 2000. There’s not forty people left in that congregation today. But Jim and Polly stayed. Jim was still at that old church building three or four days a week, paying bills, putting the bulletin together, leading singing, and teaching class up until he fell and injured his back over Thanksgiving weekend. I thank God today for Jim Martin. And when we walk into that church building for Jim’s funeral later this week, it’ll be good. It’ll be precious.

Peace,

Allan

Power Instead of Love

Central Church Family, Matthew, Preaching 1 Comment »

Scattershooting while wondering whatever happened to Bruce Huther…

~~~~~~~~~~

Randy Harris says preaching a sermon is like landing an airplane: anytime you can walk away from it, it was good! Well, I had one of those really shaky moments on Sunday when a carefully prepared and meticulously rehearsed line came out wrong and, maybe, distracted from what I was trying to communicate.

In our look at the third desert temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4, I was going with the angle suggested by both Henri Nouwen and Eugene Peterson, that Jesus was being tempted to use impersonal power and force to rule the kingdoms of the world and their splendor instead of relational love and ministry. Power is the shortcut to love. Power is easy; love is hard. It’s easier to be God than to love God. It’s easier to control people than to love people. It’s easier to own the world than to love the world. Yeah, I was on a roll. But about a third of the way into the lesson, this is what came out of my mouth:

“Every single Christian believer has an important voice and a vital presence in the way this country is run and the way our culture is shaped. Yes, it’s critical for the redemption of creation. The world must see God’s children and know where we’re coming from and where we’re going. Yes. But, listen, we are deceived by the devil if we believe for one minute we can act or think or speak in ways that are contrary to or opposed to the ways Jesus acted and thinked and…”

And then I was stopped dead in my tracks. Thinked? Did I really just say “thinked?” I heard the giggles. I acknowledged the silly mistake with a crooked grin. “Thought!” I said. “The way Jesus acted and thought and spoke.” I confessed that I had worked for nearly two weeks on that line but had just butchered it. And we laughed. And then I continued preaching.

I had just about gotten over it when we walked into Rosa’s for lunch with what seemed like half our congregation. There at one of the biggest tables in the center of the restaurant was the Granado clan. All of them. When I walked over to say “hi” like all the good preachers do, Lonnie looked at me and said, “I thinked you might come to Rosa’s today!”

Nice.

Valerie’s boyfriend made a wisecrack in Richard and Lori’s driveway Sunday night after small group. Something about he thinked it was time to go.

Thank you.

Now Valerie’s grounded for four months.

~~~~~~~~~~~

I’ve had a few requests for more information regarding the book I read from right after I destroyed that excellent line Sunday. It’s called “In the Name of Jesus,” written by Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and author who wrote a whole bunch of books on Christian leadership and discipleship based on the life and teachings of Jesus. “In the Name of Jesus” is a treatise on the desert temptations of Christ. And it’s excellent. It will challenge your views of Christ and culture and it’ll call you to a deeper following of our Lord. It’s a really short book, but, as with most of Nouwen’s works, every paragraph is packed with holy insight. As I told our congregation Sunday, you can read it in an afternoon and it’ll change your life.

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Please, please, please take two minutes to watch this video. Then, take another couple of minutes to let the shame and guilt wash completely over you. Don’t deny it. Don’t say the video is exaggerated or unrealistic. If that’s your reaction, I would point to that as proof that you’re spending way too much time looking at your phone and not being present in or paying attention to the place God’s put you. Then, please make a vow to leave your cell phone in your car when you meet friends for meals. Make a promise to never, ever take a cell phone into a business meeting or worship service. And resolve to never again take it out of your pocket and look at the screen unless the thing actually rings or buzzes. We know these phones are turning us in to a society of grunting morons. But we seem so thrilled about it.

Peace,

Allan

The Spirit of Larimore

Christ & Culture, Church, Preaching 1 Comment »

Rick Atchley takes a well known Restoration Movement slogan and updates it to reflect our most recent history: “We speak where the Bible speaks, and where the Bible is silent, we speak even more.” Oh, yeah, the silence of Scripture — is it permissive or prohibitive?  If we’re honest, most of us decide based on the issue of the moment and/or our own comfort zones. Strange, but that never really was a question that concerned anybody in our churches until right after the Civil War when we were looking to divide and punish, to humble others and make ourselves feel better.

The Civil War and the resulting hatred and bitterness that lingered into and through Reconstruction in the South played a critical and undeniable role in the divisions among the Stone – Campbell churches that ultimately led to the official “split” between the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ. To deny this would be to ignore the evidence. Similar splits along North and South lines occurred in the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian denominations at the same times. And, no, we were not immune.

As further proof, Holloway and Foster’s Renewing God’s People offers up the issues of instrumental music in corporate worship and the American Christian Missionary Society.

While the centralized missionary organization had its detractors almost as soon as it was established in 1849, the Missionary Society was not something over which anybody in a Stone-Campbell church would have fought or divided. Until after the Civil War. Following the Society’s pro-Union resolutions and its official support of the United States military, it became the firestorm issue of the Restoration Movement. To demonstrate how the War Between the States had influenced feelings and thoughts, consider that two of the Society’s most outspoken critics were former officers of the organization. Tolbert Fanning served on the board and even addressed its annual meeting in 1859. Benjamin Franklin (no, not that one) served as the Society’s secretary for thirteen years. But after the war they both repeatedly blasted the group as unbiblical in Franklin’s American Christian Review. Their main official objection was based on the “silence of Scripture.”

Since the Bible does not specifically mention anything about multi-church organizations or boards that support a combined effort among different congregations, they argued that the Missionary Society was unscriptural. Of course, those who supported and served the Society claimed that silence in Scripture is what gave them permission to do it.

The same arguments were used in debating the issue of instrumental music in our corporate worship assemblies. While the first recorded instance of an instrument used in worship in a Stone-Campbell church was in Midway, Kentucky in 1859, it really was a post-Civil War issue. The churches that brought in pianos and organs argued that, since the Bible did not prohibit it, they were permitted to use the instruments to help their singing and to appeal to the younger generations. Opposition to this “innovation” came mostly from the South, and mostly from the same “silence of Scripture” argument. The New Testament, they claimed, authorizes congregational singing, but not musical instruments. On the other hand, those who used instruments cited the same Bible verses that gave them authority to use song books and song leaders and church buildings to aid their worship: none.

The one man who might have done the most to hasten the division among the Stone-Campbell churches on these issues is Daniel Sommer who, in 1889, outlined his plan to save the Restoration Movement from “innovations and corruptions.” Unoriginally titled “An Address and Declaration,” Sommer’s paper proclaimed that if leaders and churches would not give up practices such as instrumental music, support of the Missionary Society, located preachers, and others, then “we cannot and will not regard them as brethren.”

On the other end of that attitude was a Stone-Campbell educator and preacher named T. B. Larimore. He was baptized in Kentucky in 1864 and later attended Franklin College near Nashville, studying under Fanning. This loyal son of the South was influenced and taught by some of the strongest opponents of instrumental music and the Missionary Society, but he refused to ever take sides on these issues. He never declared himself publicly. Larimore believed God’s Church should never divide over such trivial matters and, as a preacher of the Gospel, saw his duty as only to proclaim the good news of salvation from God in Christ. Larimore said he would have nothing to do with those questions over which “the wisest and best of men disagreed.”

Larimore was a highly successful and influential preacher. He baptized more than ten thousand people in his lifetime. And he would preach wherever people would listen. He was invited by both Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ and he honored each invitation. He wrote articles and religious papers for both groups. As his popularity grew he was pressured more and more to take sides on the issues that divided the Movement, but he never did. He only spoke well of people in both camps. In his words:

“I never call Christians or others ‘anti’s,’ ‘digressives,’ ‘mossback,’ ‘tackies,’ or ‘trash.’ I concede to all, and accord to all, the same sincerity and courtesy as the Golden Rule demands.”

I’m not sure what it means to be called a “tackie” — only Doug Foster knows.  But Larimore’s legacy during one of the most contentious times in our history is that he spoke only of matters of first importance. He taught and lived, by word and deed, that the only way for God’s Church to avoid the evils of division and maintain Christ’s vision for unity was to allow freedom in matters of opinion. And he kept on preaching.

Peace,

Allan

Bold and Stouthearted

Bible, Central Church Family, Legacy Church Family, Ministry, Preaching, Psalms No Comments »

“When I called, you answered me; you made me bold and stouthearted.” ~Psalm 138:3

The Word we preach and teach, the Gospel we proclaim and practice, the Kingdom of God we live in to and out of is mind-blowing, history-changing, earth-altering Truth. We declare the unmerited love and favor of the Almighty Creator of the Universe. We proclaim a righteous relationship with this Holy God through the selfless sacrifice of his perfect Son. We preach the unsurpassed power and authority extravagantly given to us by his Holy Spirit. It is the greatest news this world has ever heard. It impacts all who hear it. It transforms all who respond to it. And preaching and teaching it, practicing it and living it comes with a price.

Allow me to tell you: Hang in there. Don’t stop.

“I will praise your name for your love and faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your Word.” ~Psalm 138:2

The name and the Word of our Lord are highest above all other things. Exalted. In Truth, in power, in beauty, in holiness, in everlasting glory, the name and the Word of our God are above all else. Yes, we know it. Yes, we believe it. But it’s not easy. In fact, proclaiming it and living it are very difficult. Marva Dawn has much to say about this in A Royal Waste of Time:

“If we are truly passionate about the texts and the Lord of the texts when we preach, it will cost us. We are painting a vision of the Kingdom of God in opposition to the reign in this world of other powers, so it is a spiritual battle we are fighting, which will also physically exhaust us. We have to allow ourselves plenty of time to recover, a Sabbath of rest. We might also have to fight the darkness of doubts, the fiends of seeming failure in society’s terms, the monsters of personal hang-ups, the demons of misunderstanding on the part of those who hear or refuse to hear.”

Dawn is addressing preachers in that passage. But all of us — yeah, you, too! — need to pay attention to it. Most of the time, our words don’t come close to matching what’s in our hearts. Most of the time, our sermons and lessons don’t live up to the power of the Truth. Most of the time, our best efforts to live the Kingdom of God fall woefully short of the splendor of our King and the beauty of his love and majesty and reign.

Hang in there. Don’t stop.

God is doing something wonderful with you.

For all of you who teach and preach; all of you who cook and clean, plan and pray, sacrifice and serve; all of you who give of yourselves day in and day out for the glory of our God and his holy Kingdom:

“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for you; your love, O Lord, endures forever — do not abandon the works of your hands.” ~Psalm 138:8

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The room was packed, the energy was electric, and the anticipation was high. The Sharks concert in our worship center Saturday night had been sold out for weeks (most free concerts are) and the thousand or so in attendance (preacher’s count) were not disappointed. Johnny Weems belted out the crowd favorites while Kelly Utsinger maintained the tone of the evening with the harmonica and the corny jokes and the rest of the Sharks — a little wider and a little grayer than when they were tearing it up back in the ’80s — performed each of their musical and entertainment roles beautifully. It was a great trip down memory lane for the Sharks and their die-hard fans. But it was a wonderfully powerful night for thousands of folks in Kenya who’ve never even heard of Elvis or Buddy Holley, or the Coasters.

The Sharks were attempting to raise $10,000 at Saturday’s show to benefit Christian Relief Fund’s efforts to dig a single water well in the drought-stricken and famine-plagued area of Turkana, Kenya. The numbers are in today and the total has been announced as $19,500! With money still trickling in!

Thanks to Kelly and the Sharks, thanks to the generous hearts and open wallets of the Christ-followers at Central and all over Amarillo, thanks to our gracious God in heaven and his faithfulness to the cries of his children, CRF is going to be drilling two wells now in Turkana, not just one! Doppler Dave made the plea on behalf of CRF Saturday night. But our God is the one who moved his people to respond to his call to bring his love and goodness to those in need.

Except for the awful fish jokes, praise God for everything that happened here Saturday night and for everything he will do for the starving people in Kenya tomorrow.

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My heart goes out to Beth Bobo. She and her husband, Elvin, were great encouragers of mine during our time at Legacy. Whether praying together in my office, sharing laughs over funny stories and pictures, kidding each other about sermon length and yet another story about yet another cruise, Elvin and Beth cared for me. They cared for the young people of our church, faithfully teaching and volunteering in our children’s programs. They cared about the older people in our church, tirelessly planning and coordinating more events and functions than you could imagine. They cared about the needy and the marginalized of our community, setting up and serving and tearing down and cleaning at every single Give Away Day. They cared about the lost of the world, giving and giving and giving to our local and foreign missions efforts. Elvin and Beth cared about God’s Church. And they cared about God’s Gospel preachers. And they went way out of their way to care for me.

Elvin died early this morning. And my heart goes out to his sweet wife, Beth.

There is in store today a crown of righteousness for my brother, Elvin, awarded to him by our Lord, the righteous Judge. Elvin has finished his race. And he ran it well. He ran it very well.

Grace & Peace,

Allan

Let Us Walk Through the Door

Preaching, Resurrection 1 Comment »

I’ve been in a really confessional mood this week. So indulge me one more time: I’ve almost got this Sunday’s sermon finished, and it’s not that great.

The Easter sermon is the hardest one to write. It’s nearly impossible. And I struggle with it every year. It’s not for lack of effort. I began planning this year’s Easter sermon way back in the fall when Bill Humble was taking us through the seven churches of Asia on Wednesday nights. He used racks and racks of pictures and slides from his numerous trips to those ancient sites to capture our imaginations as he taught us. And it occurred to me then that, if I showed you pictures from my tour of the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem, I could stir you to experience the thrill of the Resurrection that I experienced. But it’s not working like I thought it would. The pictures are great. They’re spectacular. Powerful. But my words… my words are not enough. Not even close.

Reinhold Niebuhr is quoted as saying that he would always attend a “high” church on Easter Sunday where there would be great music but very little preaching. In his estimation, “No preacher is up to the task on Easter.” I think he’s probably right.

John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” beautifully and perfectly identifies the cause of every preacher’s frustration leading up to Resurrection Sunday. One of the lines is: “Let us not mock God with metaphor, / analogy, sidestepping transcendence… / let us walk through the door.”

Yes, it is a waste of time to try to explain the Resurrection. Some things can’t be reduced to an explanation and are greatly diminished in the process of trying. The task on Easter is proclamation, not explanation. On Easter, the preacher should only offer an invitation to “walk through the door” into a brand new world where the ultimate reality isn’t death, but everlasting life in the One who brought our Lord out of the grave. Accept it in all of its mystery and wonder. Rejoice in the powerful love and gracious blessing we experience at the empty tomb. Proclaim the Resurrection, don’t explain it. Proclaim it. That’s what the apostles did. And that’s what I’ll attempt to do this Sunday.

Peace,

Allan

Stay Put

Allan's Journey, Preaching 1 Comment »

Every now and then I’ll let my guard down and turn this space into a self-therapy session that I like to think reads more like serious reflection. I know it doesn’t; I just like to tell myself it does. Sometimes, honestly, my writing here is only for me. It helps me process. It helps me think. It helps me articulate better what I want to say to you or to God’s Church later. I’m OK with that. I’ve stated from the very beginning that one of the purposes of this blog is to help me wrestle and think out loud. Those of you who know me and who read this regularly are already aware of that. Those of you who are kind of new here: You’ve been warned.

Yesterday’s reflection here got me thinking about the little book by Mitch Albom, Have a Little Faith. It’s a true story in the style of Tuesdays with Morrie about the author’s faithful visits with his rabbi, Albert Lewis. Until his death about five years ago, the old man had been Albom’s rabbi since his birth. Albom has only been an official member of one synagogue his whole life, and Lewis his life-long spiritual director. For his first 50 years on this earth, Albom only had one rabbi. And the book, given to me as a gift by Steve Rogers last winter, explores the great beauty and depths of a long and faithful relationship between a pastor and his congregation.

I started the book at about 6:30 one evening last December because it looked like a quick and easy read that would serve as a departure from my normal reading. Something I wouldn’t have to think too seriously about, maybe find some good illustration ideas, but that’s it. No, it wasn’t like that at all. The book actually drove me straight to the floor of my bedroom to God in prayer, confessing, begging, promising, thanking; and then it kept me awake for a while. Way to go, Steve. Thanks a lot.

I finished the book at just before 10:00 that night. I don’t think I ever looked up. And by the time I was done, I was a weeping wreck. I seriously could not stop crying. The story put me to shame for all my failures as a pastor/preacher/leader in God’s Church. I’m not sure why yet — I’m still working on it, and may be for a while — but I really felt ashamed at my own efforts to be a Gospel preacher both at Legacy and now here at Central. At the same time, the book inspired me to be better. To try harder. It moved me to do more, to take more time with people, to pay attention more, to be less anxious, to live with more and more Christian integrity.

The guy in the story was faithful to his work and stayed put. That’s Steve’s way of saying it: “the guy was faithful to the Lord and to his congregation by being the same guy everywhere he went and he stayed put.” Yeah. As we discussed here yesterday, there’s something powerful, very powerful in staying at one church. I think I sometimes struggle a little with the fact that I left Legacy after less than five years. Sometimes I feel like I quit on them, bailed on them. I preached funerals and weddings, baptized their kids and did FaithBuilders with their families, lived and died in small groups, wrestled and fought over worship practices and outreach efforts. And then I left. True, I could not continue in my role there, no way. But I sometimes feel bad for leaving. Like I failed there. I worked through some of this with Tim and Gary coming back from ElderLink. But it weighs on me sometimes. And it smashed me like a two-by-four in the throat as I read the book.

I’ve reassured myself that, for lots of young people here at Central, I can still be that preacher they’ve known their whole lives. I can still do those faithful longevity things that I, too, think are so important. And I want to. I really do.

I, too, want to be a better leader. My faults are many. I’m pretty sure my heart is right most of the time, but I’ve got such a long, long way to go.

I highly recommend the book. It’ll move you to thanksgiving and praise of our God who uses holy and sacred relationships over time to redeem this broken world. It’ll force you to evaluate your own relationships within God’s Church. And it’ll compel you to try harder. And to stay put.

Peace,

Allan