Headlines from First Thoughts

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Making Love Happen

(The following posts were originally published for www.followingthestar.com)

Matthew 11:7-11

Love begins when we realize that we cannot make it through life without looking back. When we turn around, we see significant people who made it possible for us to be who we are today.

John the Baptist made Jesus’ ministry effective. John, who was part of Jesus’ extended family, did things that Jesus did not come to do. Like Isaiah’s, he opened doors, prepared hearts, and preached sermons that people had not heard in a long time. He wore just camel’s hair for worship and used the Jordan River for a sanctuary. If Jesus had been that person, few would have believed him. After John’s disciples left, Jesus gave credit to the giant on whose shoulders he stood.

Who made things happen in your life? Who was the person who shared Christ and life with you and made you who you are today? More than likely they sacrificed a great deal of money, resources, and fame so that you could live, breathe, play, and enjoy.

Take time to share love this Advent season with someone who has made it possible for you to live the way you live today. Tell them personally through a note, email, or a personal word of thanks.

Prayer: Thank you, God, that we are not alone and that others have prepared the way for us.

Minding Behavior

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)

Matthew 11:2-6

Mind-reading. It happens all the time. People love to take a few actions, tie them together, and “Wa-la!” You know what they’re “thinking.” You hear it in phrases that begin with “Everybody thinks.” “Everybody thinks that I’m a……” “They think that he’s a……..” “She thinks that we’re going to…….”

John the Baptist’s followers were playing the “everybody thinks” game about Jesus. They assumed Jesus was trying to be like him. Jesus reminds John the Baptist’s followers that no one is a mind-reader. You can only read behavior. Here are his actions—healing the blind, curing the lame, treating people with health conditions as people, and sharing good news. Love your mind during Advent, and give your mind a gift. Let someone else read minds, and you focus instead on behavior. No matter what “they think,” there is a world to discover just watch by watching others’ actions. That will tell you everything you need to know about a person.

Prayer: I confess that I’m more concerned about what people think rather than what they do. Help me to see the behavior of others and love them as you do.

The Next Best Thing

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)

James 5:7-10

We’re always waiting for the next thing. The semester to end, Christmas to come, school year to break, life to begin. We say, “I can’t wait until…” or “When I get out of school.” James says that while waiting for the next thing, we need the discipline of daily obedience to God.

James uses the example of a farmer who is patient intentionally. He does not throw seed on the ground and hope that the sun and rain will do their thing. He is deliberately patient. He takes responsibility for the land, fertilizing, weeding, tilling, and nurturing. He repairs his equipment, works with the tools, and does everything that he thinks is necessary to be prepared for a good crop.

Like a farmer, we have work to do while we patiently await the “next” thing—graduation, college, marriage, career, etc. We can easily get caught up in the “when I get to…” mode and forget about the gifts of responsibilities.

The gift of showing love rather than gossip to the person who shares a locker. The opportunity to sow secret seeds of kindness to a child or a senior adult. The chance to treat parents with respect and gratitude rather than grumbling and arguing. The next thing you know, we’ve arrived.

Prayer: As I seek your patience, help me focus on today, God, and the gifts that are in front of me.

On the Way with God

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)
Isaiah 35:8-10

The hardest thing about getting a driver’s license is waiting for the test. The longest season of life seems to be the months between learner’s and driver’s permits. Our parents watch every move we make. We can’t even back the car out of the driveway with mom or dad or both getting tense.

In a world without motor vehicles, Isaiah imagines another kind of highway that God has created that we have free access to. It’s the Way of God. Like getting a learner’s permit and waiting for the license, as believers we have joined God on the way in this life and await the life that is to come. We drive on this spiritual road through our belief in God, but we do not do so with total freedom. We are not allowed to live with whatever behavior we want to. God invites us on the way of holiness, governed not by the rules imposed by society but from a relationship with a living God who invited us.

This Father is not tense or worried; he enjoys the ride with you; and invites you to continue the journey. The Way lasts a lifetime and ends at an eternal destination.

Prayer: Father, thank you for being the calm presence on the stressful highway of life.

Leaping with the Lame

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)
Isaiah 35:5-7

In the ancient world, physical disabilities signified spiritual problems. If you were lame, people assumed your parents did something to cause it. If you could not speak, you possibly said something wrong to mute your tongue.

We might laugh and assume “we’d never do that.” The Facebook world, however, gives into the same mentality. On the surface, you on see what a person looks like but can not know the complete story. We see someone who is obese or gaunt, and we might presume gluttony or anorexia. We look at someone’s ethnicity and presume “good athlete” or “smart student.”

Isaiah imagines a different kind of world-- where water springs up in dry places, when pools are built in the Sahara. This kind of world causes believers to see the lame, mute, physically, mentally, socially, and culturally disabled and to look past the surface of their lives. Isaiah says, “You can’t judge a book….or a person….by her cover.” What we see on the outside is an invitation to us to leap with the lame, to see to the mute, to listen to the blind. And when we do, our hearts are the ones that are changed.

A Drought of Love

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)
Isaiah 35:1-4

A full grown tree drinks 200 gallons of water in a region of the country that needs all the water it can get. The simple solutions is to remove trees, right? Unfortunately, the tree is a common nesting ground for the endangered willow flycatcher. Local government is prohibited from removing the trees that drink the water. Unfortunately, when the city of San Angelo dredged the local lake to create a larger place to catch runoff rain water, the sludge held the seedlings of future salt cedars. The workers deposited the gunk along the side of the lake and literally planted seeds of trees that consumed the water.

The water of love can be drained like a Salt Cedar planted beside a lake. When we withhold love from certain neighbors, friends or enemies, the water of love is consumed by the trees of mistrust, hate, and vengeance. In Isaiah, God corrects us with his own purifying love. God uproots the hate, vengeance, and mistrust so that we can be free to love again. Spiritual renewal requires God’s corrective love. Water and love flow when there are no barriers between ourselves and others.

Prayer: Holy God, I confess the deeds that have drained my life of the water of love. Lord, have mercy.

Loving the Alien

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)
Psalm 146:5-10

Dora the Explorer was just a cartoon character on Nickelodeon until she became the face of Psalm 146:9 for me. I met her during our Latino Vacation Bible School in 2005 in our gymnasium. When I introduced myself to this young mother with a baby she said in simple English, “I’m Dora…you know like the Explorer.”

Dora accepted Christ at that Vacation Bible School and was baptized that week. At the time, we did not have a Latino pastor in Knoxville; but we promised to take care of the new believers.

A few weeks later, Dora was admitted to a local hospital with pneumonia-like symptoms. The physician told her she needed a heart valve. With no immigration papers, no insurance, and little money, the hospital discharged her. That’s when a church member became the hands and feet of God. She contacted friends in Washington and found a federal grant that would pay for the surgery. A few days later, Dora was re-admitted to the hospital and received successful surgery.

Every Sunday when she worships, she is living proof that God watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless. And most of the time God does it through us.

Prayer: God, give us eyes to see and hands to touch the aliens among us.

Safe Stories

At the beginning of the film, the Never Ending Story, a young boy named Bastian finds himself in an old bookstore, inquiring of the bookstore owner about a special book that he has noticed. “What’s that book about?” asks Bastian.
“Oh this is something special,” says the bookstore owner. “Well, what is it?”
“Look your books are safe,” the owner says, “By reading them you get to become Tarzan, or Robinson Crusoe.”
“But that’s what I like about them,” says Bastian.
“Ah, but afterwards you get to be a little boy again.”
“What do you mean?” asks Bastian. “Listen,” says the man.
“Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid is attacking you?”
“Yes,” says Bastian.
“Weren’t you afraid you couldn’t escape?”
“But it’s only a story!”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” says the man. “The ones you read are safe.”

I've treated the Christmas story in years past like a book in a used bookstore. Each year, I have read it, reenacted it, preached it, and imagined it. And I have put it safely back on the shelf and become the person that I always was. But for the story to have any meaning, I must, like young Bastion discovered in the movie, enter the story and become part of it.

Matthew invites us to do just that. He mentions three groups of 14 generations in Matthew chapter 1. The first group is from Abraham to David, the second from David to the exile, and the third from the exile to Jesus. The only problem numerically is that there are only 13 generations listed in chapter 1 of Matthew from the exile to Jesus.

Some scholars suggest, however, that the 14th generation is the church--from the 1st century forward who completes the story. They listen, imagine, and then enter the story, from the moment of Immanuel-- "God with us" until the times is fulfilled while Jesus "is with us always until the end of the age."

Call from the Unwanted

Vocation, or one's calling, as Frederick Buechner reflected, is the place where "Your deepest longing meets the world's greatest need." After studying Joseph's decision this Advent, I would add another layer to the definition. For Joseph, Mary's difficult circumstance became an awakening to a decision to a new kind of righteousness.

Matthew 1:18-25 tells us that Joseph was already known as a righteous man before he chose to be Jesus' earthly father. He was righteous because he abided by the Old Testament purity laws like every other faithful devoted Jewish male. But the purity laws usually forced people to withdraw from the defiled and profane. Mary was viewed by the culture like Bathsheba, Rahab, and a long line of other sinful people. But like these women, their circumstances awakened the call of God in their lives. In Joseph's case, he redefined righteousness for all of us. Instead of withdrawing from those deemed "impure" by the religious. He walked into the place and lived with the person whom the villagers would surely disgrace (as the text says).

Vocation can also be then the moment when you see the world's greatest need, and despite your upbringing, you enter the world of the needy to be the righteousness that they need. What a calling, what a privilege, what a challenge.

When someone in our family or network chooses a lifestyle that scripture deems as "sinful," or when a friend makes a mistake that he will later regret, we have two choices for righteousness-- one that withdraws from them back to the Old Testament view. Or another kind of righteousness-- the kind that causes us to join the crisis. Their choice (or maybe our choices) awaken the call of God on our lives to enter the unwanted, difficult circumstance. And in that moment there is "Immanuel-- God with Us."

And when we are the ones who have made the choice, mistake, and have sinned, the very act of making the mistake can awaken God's call on our lives. It can be a moment-- much as experienced by Bathsheba, Rahab, and many others who have found God in their brokenness, and even God found them.

Harold the King

I've learned that the Christmas story has some prominent and not so significant characters. Each one is important not only to the story but also to the way we have seen the story re-enacted at the Knoxville Nativity Pageant. Not only do you get a few characters you expect-- shepherds, Mary, and Joseph, but according to Parker, Herod the King is better known as Harold.

First Baptist members and many others in the community began this event years ago. We saw the Nativity Pageant this year at the Colisseum in downtown Knoxville. This event has become part of our Advent celebrations because Parker responds to the live action, drama, simplicity, and even the friends he sees playing a part. As parents, I'm thrilled by what it does not have-- no blood, no guts, no gore. It's not overdone, overpreached, overemotionalized, oversentimentalized. It's a nice cominbation of the accounts of Matthew and Luke with the arrival of the magi conveniently at the manger so we can go home in 45 minutes.

There are a few welcome liberties taken. Not only do you see the traditional characters, but a few others that have taken on a new role at the Shiell home. Parker's buddy Zeb played a villager. He was thrilled to see that Zeb not only played a significant role-- walking in the village-- but he did two things. (1) He laid on a mat during one scene; and (2) A soldier pushed Zeb. I've checked the footnotes, checking to see if there is a pushing scene in Luke, but alas there is not. But according to Parker, because Zeb was pushed, "it's there."

When we arrived home, Parker was ready to perform his own pageant. I asked him if he wanted to be in the pageant one day. "No, Dad, I'll just do my own in the neighborhood."

"Who's going to be in it, I asked?"

So he made a list of all 14 characters that he needed and began recruiting them. Some in the Bible and some others, well, in the imagination.

Guys who get pushed- 2
Soldiers who push the guys- 2
Shepherds- 3
Magi- 3
Mary- 1
Joseph- 1
Angel- 1
Harold the King- 1

The Christmas story invites us not only to observe but to re-enact the meaning in our lives. Whether or not we don costumes, we see the imperfect characters who weclomed Jesus and realize everyone can have a part to play. We share God's perfect love with an imperfect world even if all we can remember are the moments we fall down.

Christmas Musical

The film that captured Parker's imagination was not found in theaters. You could find it on the Disney Channel. High School Musical--2-- surprised everyone in my home. It was even better than the first. I know this not because I actually watched the first movie. I listened to the music (over and over in the car), heard the stories told, and was informed many times how I needed to "get with it" and watch the movie. So when "2" came out, I squeezed in a few minutes and realized that Disney knows as much about Christmas as I do.

The two movies reflect themes needed at this time of year. The first is about a group of teenagers brought together by a musical, despite their varied interests in sports, the arts, or the nerds. Everybody has a talent to offer even if they did not realize they can sing, dance, or play and instrument.

The second goes further. When the teens are off to work at a resort for the summer, they learn that no matter their economic place in life, everyone is important. We need each other to survive.

Christmas invades our world again along similar lines. The shepherds, magi, and teenagers have a part to play even if they had no idea what the Christ child truly was. It takes all of us-- including the outcasts and insiders-- to survive. It's a storyline worth telling, and singing, again and again.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Unwanted Baby

Maybe I was mistaken, or perhaps I turned off my brain in seminary. I think I heard the words "unplanned pregnancy" associated with the conception of Jesus for as long as I can remember. After 10 years of ministry in Texas and now 3 in Tennessee, unplanned and pregnancy I guess go together pretty frequently in Baptist life.

Preaching is heard and spoken through all kinds of filters. In a nod to all the unwed, troubled, and ill-timed conceptions, "unplanned" fit one motif of Mary and Joseph's relationship. The biggest trouble with searching for the new inside the old story is that you tend to come back with motifs that fit your culture. The "unwed" "unplanned" labels note a moment of grace and hope for redemption.

But I need a stronger word, something that really gets at the root of all this. I don't want to overreach, but as I understand this moment somewhere between Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:47-2:4, Jesus' arrival was worse than an unplanned event.

Unplanned is a bit too staid and sterile. The word reminds me of an event on a calendar that could have worked better with enough committee meetings, staff meetings, or medical equipment. Unplanned is the holiday guest that calls. We can make room for her. Not a big deal. Unplanned is the sound going out in the middle of the sermon. Inconvenient, yes. Fixable, yes.
You can adjust for the unplanned.

Planning was the last thing on a 12-or-13 year old girl's mind in 1st century Israel. Parents did that, and they decided to wed her to the carpenter's son Joseph. It was a good economic arrangement for both parties, and the rites of 1st century betrothal were in place. Money was exchanged, and Joseph prepared to be married to a woman that he would try to fall in love with later. First marriage, then love.

The last thing you would want in the middle of all this would be a baby. They had not courted. What was dating to a 1st century person?

What you want is that Joseph will have enough money and room in the house for Mary when she comes to lives with him during the period of betrothal. What you want is for Joseph to stay alive and not leave Mary widowed. What you want is that this family can just have a nice normal start. Baby, yes, but that's for much later.

So when an angel arrives on the scene and becomes both Joseph's nightmare and answer to his prayers, the angel assures Jim that the greatest gifts in life are the most challenging, unexpected, and at the moment, unwanted presents. When an angel conveys similar information to Mary, it's no wonder she left town. The omission of a family support network on Mary's side shouts from the silence in the Gospel of Luke just how undesirable these circumstances really are. Mary needs time, Mary needs to go alone in the silence to her relative Elizabeth's home. Only then can this news become good.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Signs of the Season

The portable warning lights flashed on Morrell Road last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Normally reserved to warn you about accidents or other oncoming hazards, the sign warned of impending doom in the parking lot of West Town Mall. It read,


Far from a happy seasonal greeting, the mall’s marquis gave me a sign for Advent. Some see the season prior to Christmas as warning and gloom. They are bred by fear, grief, cynicism, and apathy that accompany the madness of the mall.


This season, we’re writing new markers to prepare our lives for Christmas. Instead of fear, apathy, cynicism, and grief, we’re replacing them with new signs of life. They are hope, peace, joy, and love. Instead of flashing on the highway, we hold them proudly on our hearts, in our lives, around our homes, and in our worship. When we come together as people of God we sing,


Looking for signs of the season? You’ll find one posted here at First Baptist.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ministering in the Center of the City

John 4 tells a very interesting story that if we will let it live in us, can show us how to live as Christ in our community.

You know the story, it’s the story of a Samaritan woman. Her encounter with Jesus challenges our church to ask questions that lead to relationships for Christ.
Everyone knew she was thirsty.
¨ She could not worship at the Temple, and she was thirsty for a place to worship.
¨ She had five husbands and was thirsty for authentic relationship.
¨ She was a sinner, and she was thirsty for a Savior.

But Jesus was just as thirsty as she.
¨ He needed a drink of water.
¨ He wanted a relationship with her.
¨ He wanted to show her authentic salvation.
Instead of showing her first how He could meet her need, He asks her to meet His. Jesus asked the woman. “Will you give me a drink?”

In the center of our city, Knoxville, are all kinds of people: students, creative class, empty nesters, the poor. All are thirsty—some who know they are, many who don’t. They are thirsty for authentic relationship. We desire to know them. As a church, First Baptist Church of Knoxville must focus on asking questions that allow us to enter the story of these city dwellers’ lives.

Over the next few days, I will be posting several steps we are taking to minister in the center of the city.

Zambian Vocal Group

The Zambian Vocal Group will perform in the Sanctuary at First Baptist Church of Knoxville on Wednesday, November 28, at 7:00 pm. The public is cordially invited to this free concert. This group is comprised with seven young men who have brought a new definition to the word “a cappella.” They came half way around the world from Zambia, so we may experience the unique combination of traditional African rhythms, vocal percussion, and complex vocal harmonies. First Baptist Church of Knoxville, founded in 1843, is located at 510 West Main in downtown Knoxville. Parking is available in the Bank of America Parking Garage located on the west side of the church. Nursery provided.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Community Ministry at FBC

From handouts to holistic ministry
(from http://www.baylor.edu/fcm_journal/index.php?id=48096)
When she looked at how many churches do community ministries, Carol McEntyre saw the best intentions but not always the best methods.
"We want to share the love of Christ and spread the good news but churches haven't always been effective in doing that," she said.
In her role as director of Buckner Community Ministries at First Baptist Church of Knoxville (Tenn.), McEntryre is finding ways to help the congregation and community organizations become more effective in how they serve others.
McEntyre works at the church as an employee of Buckner Children and Family Services, a globally oriented ministry that works with children in need, and a division of Buckner International, Dallas, Texas. A social worker, with an undergraduate degree from Carson Newman College and a Master of Social Work degree from Baylor University, McEntyre was first employed by the 1,700-member congregation in 2004 as minister to university students.
Life-transforming ministries
She has found that many churches engage in what she calls "commodities-based ministries," giving people food, clothes or money for rent. "But to me, building community ministries in the church means building ministries that are life-transforming."
She said the question she and First Baptist are exploring together is, "How do we take everything we do and make it about relationship and life transformation and not about giving stuff away?"
McEnytre uses her social work background to help congregation members better understand what the long-term effects of community ministry can be. Instead of the immediate good feeling of giving away a Christmas basket or sponsoring a child at the holidays, she said, "We are trying to go a step further and change lives. Once they [congregation members] hear the rationale, they began to understand that we could really make a difference and have just been totally on board."
The Rev. William Shiell, senior pastor at First Baptist Knoxville, said McEntyre's focus on transforming ministries has been revitalizing. "Carol empowers the church to develop relationships and move beyond the standard ‘programs and handouts' so often found in downtown ministry," he said.
Kids Hope USA
Kids Hope USA is an example of a community ministry that McEntrye believes can have a lasting impact and be an eye-opener for congregation members. The school-based mentoring program brings volunteers face-to-face with at-risk children and works in collaboration with Buckner in many parts of the country. She helped First Baptist become involved in Kids Hope USA two years ago at a local elementary school.
"We have 19 mentors at the school now. That means 19 hours out of every week there is somebody from First Baptist Knoxville at that elementary school," she said. "Once you start something like that, it's easier to say we don't want to just give stuff away, but we want to engage people in relationships."
As trust grows between the school and the church, the relationship becomes reciprocal. McEntyre said that when the school recently wanted to send some students to safety patrol training in Washington, D.C., the school social worker called the church and asked for help. With just one e-mail, the Kids Hope volunteers raised all the money needed.
"It's because those mentors know the school, love the school, love the children and are invested," McEntryre said. "If we had not had the relationship with the school, we could not have raised that money."
It's that kind of collaboration that Shiell finds so rewarding. "Buckner has provided the catalyst for our community ministry to come to fruition," he said. "Without their collaboration, we would not be able to minister in an effective, holistic way."
People want to make a difference
In addition, Shiell said that investing in such an empowered community ministry has attracted new members to the church. "Many people have been drawn to our church who want to make a difference in Knoxville," he said.
That's exactly what Buckner hopes will happen when it places a staff member into a church, said Scott Waller, director of program initiatives for Buckner International. "We don't place professional social workers into churches to do church ministry for them," he said. "We want to empower, equip and energize the congregation to do what only the congregation can do."
For that to happen, Waller said the church culture, vision and leadership have to align. "When all of that lines up, like it has in Knoxville, that's when the church can create long-term, sustainable, effective ministries," he said.
ESOL program for Latinos
Another example of such an emerging ministry at the church is its English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. A large Latino population lives in the community where the church is located, and the ESOL program has grown quickly. This challenged the church to think about ways to take the ministry to another level.
"Last year we brought in a bi-vocational minister to begin a Latino congregation in our church," McEnytre said. "And so now it's a really interesting blend of the ESOL program feeding and nurturing the church, and the church feeding people into the ESOL program."
One positive result is that the demarcation between the church and the community has blurred. "It becomes just part of the DNA of the church. It's who the church is and what we do," she said. "It's not their community over there and the church over here.
"That's life-transforming, to move to a culture and not know the language and to end up learning the language, and to have this church body supporting you and encouraging you."
Serving the 'least of these'
Sharing her passion to serve with the members of First Baptist Knoxville has been a blessing, said McEntyre, who first felt called to ministry in college.
"I felt like serving people who were in need would be a very practical, tangible, real way to live out my faith," she said. "And I really feel like my role as community minister is mobilizing church members to serve the ‘least of these.'"
A lack of compassion for others is not the problem, McEntyre said, but she hopes to help people focus their compassion and then establish realistic, sustainable boundaries.
'Healthy helping'
"‘Healthy helping' is a term we've begun to use around here," she said. "We find ourselves asking ‘How do we help in a way that's healthy?' It's funny that this is a challenge, but it is," she said. "And now that we've begun down this road of community ministries, I have church members coming to me all the time, interested in starting new community ministries."
Recently, First Baptist conducted a churchwide, six-week program it called "Get Connected," in which sermons and Sunday school lessons focused on volunteerism. The program talked about setting specific boundaries for the church's community ministry programs and evaluating where members' passions lie.
In addition, McEntryre trained 27 church members in how to conduct interviews with individuals about their passions, interests, skills and gifts. Some of the questions included "If time, money and talent were not an issue, what would you love to do?" and "What kind of skills do you have that you would be willing to lend to the church?" These responses are still being studied, but already McEntrye sees pockets of interest emerging. McEntyre encourages other churches that are beginning or want to improve their community ministries to first look within.
"I would say the first thing you need to do is get to know your congregation," she said. "Get to know people. What are people passionate about and how can we channel that passion and energy and concern? "People are committed," McEntyre said. "Expect big things from people, and they'll rise to the occasion."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Jesus Doll

If you haven’t heard about the latest curiosity on Wal-Mart’s shelves, you will. After all, it’s just a toy. But this product has all the trappings of religious wolves. If the retailers don’t promote the product, the manufacturer is sure to garner your attention. Brace yourself, friends, for the arrival of the “Jesus Doll.” This toy is a talking Jesus designed ostensibly to teach kids about him and make a lot of money for the company.

I hoped that the action figure would go the way of all jokes. I actually received a promotional piece from the company (one2believe.com) asking me to ask you (they were so polite) to “take back the toy store shelves” in the “name of Jesus.” Yes, dear ones, this was a true “battle for the toy box” and the weapons would be your wallets, and of course, your sanctuary. I’m serious about their request; I just ignored it. Trying to follow Miss Corden’s maxim from kindergarten--ignore bad behavior--I saved the letter thinking that it would be a fodder for a humorous anecdote one day. Now the joke’s on me. Local station WATE and CNN Headline News have asked me to comment on the product. Apparently, the character will just not go away until Santa Claus has come.

What’s really going on here? Apparently, the company missed Jesus’ marketing campaign that he shared with the rich young ruler: “Go sell all your goods and give them to the poor.” This toy is another example of a company insulting the intelligence of the American consumer and using Christianity as a marketing label. The battle is not between G.I. Joe and Jesus. My concern is that the company treats Jesus as a product to be sold at the lowest retail price rather than a person who invites us into a relationship. The company illustrates the height of consumerism, commercialism, and materialism that has poisoned the witness of 21st century Christianity. The best way we can teach kids about Jesus is to learn the stories from the Bible, tell them using the God-given imaginations of adults and children, and share his story through our lives. The last thing we need to do is cheapen the image of the Son of God with another action figure.

Certainly there are toys I do not plan to purchase for Parker or Drake. This imaginary battle, however, is not waged over the selection on a shelf but the decisions made by parents when they realize that Jesus does not fit into a box or a brand. Instead of buying more toys, maybe we could just purchase a blanket or a pair of pajamas for the Christmas brunch. That would be money well spent and a story worth repeating: “I was naked and you clothed me.”

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Team in Split

Cliff Shirley, Bill Shiell, and Scott Moore with our Croatian hosts

After 1700 years, New Life Begins

(Here I am teaching with the help of a translator in the sanctuary of the Baptist Church)

(above: Matthew Evans and Scott Moore visit in the fellowship room of the Baptist Church in Split)

Churches in Split have been around longer than most European nations. In the early 300's the
earliest Christians established a foothold amidst (or possibly because of) the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution. When Diocletian died, the church took over his masoleum and turned the facility into a cathedral. Those early days of Christianity have long since been subsumed under the restrictions of religion, but now new life springs forth like the water from an Artesian well.

Fifteen years ago, the church-- and most of the country of Croatia-- had died. The prospect of war and the oppression of religiosity squelched the spirit. Out of the ravages of war, new believers emerged. Now some 400 believers populate a small number of churches you could count on two hands. All this in a region with a population of 400,000.

Two of these churches are Baptist, and I spoke in a church that will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Christmas Day. Fifteen believers gathered tonight to discuss the topic "Reaching the Unreached in Split." Using the basic principles of building relationships for Jesus Christ, I described what we have learned about how a relationship with Jesus affects relationships with non-believers. Most of those in attendance were men in their 20s and 30s. Can you imagine a church in America having 10-15 young adult men talking about evangelism on a Thursday night? They stayed for 2 hours, asked great questions, and return tomorrow night.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Showing off New Shoes

Showing off a new pair of Shoes

The Ignac children show off their new shoes

Shoes with a Name

They are known by so many names...the Romani people, the Gypsies, an unreached people group. But for the Pastoral Center in Cakovec, a ministry of the Croatian Baptist Union and First Baptist Knoxville, these are real people with names and needs. For the past four years, First Baptist has partnered with the Pastoral Center in Cakovec, Croatia, to provide resources for ministry in the North Central region of Croatia. We have sent 7 mission teams of youth and college students and adults. Our partnership includes construction for the Pastoral Center, multi-use human needs and worship center on the northern edge of Croatia across the border from Hungary. The center provides a location for a new church start, a training site for current and future Baptists leaders, and home for community ministry to youth in the surrounding area.

In 2007, the Center expanded its ministry to Romani people in the village outside of Cakovec. Karmen Horvac, a Baptist layperson, teaches a Bible club each week to Romani children. In June 2007, Michael McEntyre led a team of First Baptist students and sponsors in a Backyard Bible Club-style mission trip to the Gypsy village. During their visit, the church approached Buckner International to help them provide shoes for these Romani children.

Buckner provided a mechanism through which we could send 500 shoes through the Shoes for Orphan Souls emphasis. In August, the church held a Shoes for Orphan Souls drive in collaboration with Buckner and a local Christian radio station, WYLV. The church collected 800 shoes, 500 which were for Croatia. The community donated 1500 shoes through the efforts of the radio station.

This week, Bill Shiell, Matthew Evans, Cliff Shirley, and Scott Moore delivered the first batch of shoes to the Romani children. Philip, Monica, and Sabina Ignac were the first recipients. The Ignac family hosts the Bible club, and Karmen Horvac will be distributing the rest of the shoes.

Through the collaboration with Buckner, First Baptist has enabled Croatian Baptists to cross another barrier in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. This good news comes to souls who need shoes and are known by so many labels. This week in Croatia, the Ignac family are the first to be a part of Buckner's expansion into Croatia and a new avenue for the Pastoral Center's ministry. Most importantly, Philip, Monica, and Sabina are God's children.

Greetings from Croatia

Matthew Evans, Cliff Shirley, Scott Moore, and I are in Cakovec today. We are meeting with the international and local leadership of the Pastoral Center and visiting the Romani people (gypsy) village nearby.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Church in the Hogwarts

Harry Potter is growing up. I guess he's joined the rest of the adolescent world. You can't be a cute little boy forever. But as I watched the latest movie the other night, I was reminded that growing up is painful.

In the "Order of the Phoenix," he's confronted with the choices of every teenager-
Do I go it alone or depend on my friends to help me?
Do I remain angry or make wise choices?
Do I name the evil around me or do I ignore it and hope it goes away?

Harry of course decides that he can't live without his friends. Surrounding himself with Ron, Hermoine, and other good influences makes him a better person. His godfather Sirius Black tells them that he can choose not to be so angry. Instead he can choose the good rather than the darkness. When the "Ministry of Magic" is so afraid to face the reality of an evil too powerful to remain hidden, Harry has the courage not only to name the evil-Voldemort-but to summon friends to band together to withstand the wiles of the evil one. Hogwarts becomes not only the training ground for the good but also the support system to help them believe in others who can be just as good as they. Hogwarts is not immune to problems; others in their midst insidiously try to wound them; but the band of believers remains united.

Isn't that what church is supposed to be? The band of believers working together to shape and re-shape the community around us. We are so secure that we can withstand others in our midst who would seek to deny evil exists. Instead we remain vigilant, courageous, unafraid, confronting most importantly the evil that resides within. And all along, we never face the world alone; we do so with each other. And that's how we grow.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Dreams Before Waking

This is a great poem for city-dwellers. It's written from the perspective of a window whose view is being blocked by a high rise.

Dreams Before Waking
by Adrienne Rich

Despair falls:
the Shadow of a building
they are raising in the direct path
of your slender ray of sunlight
slowly the steel girders grow
the skeletal framework rises
yet the western light still filters
through it all
still glances off the plastic sheeting
they wrap around it
for dead of winter.

At the end of winter something changes
a faint subtraction
from consolations you expected
an innocent brilliance that does not come
through the flower shops set out
once again on the pavement
their pots of tight-budded sprays
the bunches of jonquils still with cold
and at such a price
though someone must buy them
you study those hues as if with hunger

Despair falls
like the day you come home
from work, a summer evening
transparent with rose-blue light
and see they are filling
the framework
the girders are rising
beyond your window
that seriously you live
in a different place
though you have never moved

and will not move, not yet
but will give away your potted plants to a friend
on the other side of town
along with the cut crystal
flashing in the window-frame
will forget the evenings
of watching the street, the sky
the planes in the feathered afterglow:
will learn to feel grateful simply for this foothold

where still you can manage
to go on paying rent
where still you can believe
it’s the old neighborhood:
even the woman who sleeps at night
in the barred doorway—wasn’t she always there?
and the man glancing, darting for food in the supermarket trash—
when did this hunger come to this?
what made the difference?
what will make it for you?

What will make it for you?
you don’t want to know the stages
and those who go through them don’t want to tell
You have your four locks on the door
your savings, your respectable past
your strangely querulous body, suffering
sicknesses of the city no one can name
Your have your pride, your bitterness
your memories of sunset
you think you can make it straight through
you don’t speak of despair.

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope?—
You yourself must change it.—
what would it feel like to know your country was changing?—
You yourself must change it.—
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page to the end of despair?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Family Reunion Bus Trip

Parker and I at Niagara Falls riding the "Maid of the Mist" boat. We're wet!

Family Reunion Bus Trip

Parker on top of the Rockefeller Center with Empire State Building in Background.

Family Reunion Bus Trip

Parker in Central Park

Thursday, May 31, 2007

How to End Violence

This summer, be a part of these great initiatives to end violence.

These are hosted by Knoxville Interfaith Network.

KIN's Neighborhoods Action Team
June 28, July 26, and Aug 23.
7:00-8:30 Immaculate Conception Catholic Church

Youth & Education Action Team
Church of the Savior
7 to 8:30 on the third Tuesday of the month.
June 19, July 17, Aug 21.

Strengthening Families Action Team
Immaculate Conception Church
7 to 8:30
June 7, July 5, Aug 2.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Open Letter to People of Faith

An Open Letter to the Community from People of Faith:
"Choosing Unity and Compassion; Rejecting Violence, Division and Hatred"
May 29, 2007 - Knoxville, Tennessee

I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men (and women) can build up.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dear people of faith and goodwill throughout our community:

As people of faith and goodwill, we are appalled that any group would attempt to use the tragedy of a murder, any murder, as the pretext for furthering its cause, especially when that cause is so obviously wrong.

We are also confident that the strong fabric of faith and goodwill in our community will serve as a barrier to the divisive and misguided rhetoric of those who seek to tear down rather than build-up understanding between people.

Our hearts go out to victims of violence and their families. We commit ourselves and invite others to join with us in working constructively to address all forms of violence in our city and society. We reject the notion that such violence can ever be attributed to any single race, class or group of people. Any act of violence, any practice of injustice and any expression of prejudice or racism in our community should concern everyone in our community. The answer is not the propagation of misinformation, division or hatred, but the cultivation of responsibility, unity and mutual compassion.

We call upon our fellow citizens to pray for all victims of violence and their families; to seek real solutions to the causes of violence; and to reach across the boundaries of race, faith, neighborhood, class and other differences among us to join hands in an effort to build up community, goodwill and trust in our city.

With deep faith in the transforming power of God's goodness and love,

Johnnie Skinner, Mt. Zion Baptist Church and Clergy Caucus of the Knoxville Interfaith Network (KIN)
Thea Peterson, St. John’s Lutheran Church & Knoxville Inner City Churches United for People (KICCUP)
Grant Standefer, Compassion Coalition
Julie Blakeley, First Baptist Church of Knoxville
Chris Buice, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church
Joe Ciccone, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church
John Bluth Gill, Church of the Savior, United Church of Christ
Jim Sessions, United Methodist Church, Children’s Defense Fund
William D. Shiell, First Baptist Church of Knoxville

Faith Communities Engage Initiatives to End Violence

Faith Communities Engage Initiatives to End Violence

Knoxville, Tenn.--Seeking to end hatred and violence in all its forms, over 100 faith communities—representing more than 50,000 members—and the Knoxville area organizations that bind them together, are working to act in cooperation to end violence.

Those participating in this effort include: Johnnie Skinner, Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the Clergy Caucus of the Knoxville Interfaith Network (KIN); Grant Standefer, Compassion Coalition; Thea Peterson; St. John’s Lutheran Church and Knoxville Inner City Churches United for People (KICCUP); Julie Blakeley, First Baptist Church of Knoxville; Chris Buice, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church; Joe Ciccone, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church; John Bluth Gill, Church of the Savior, United Church of Christ; Jim Sessions, United Methodist Church and the Children’s Defense Fund; William D. Shiell, First Baptist Church of Knoxville; and the Bahai Community.
"We welcome anyone to join with us in working constructively to address violence in the city, but we reject the notion that such violence can be attributed to any single race, class or group of people. Any act of violence, any practice of injustice and any suggestion of prejudice or racism toward anyone in our community should concern everyone in our city. We call upon all citizens to reach across the boundaries of race, faith, neighborhood, class and other differences among us to join hands in an effort to build community, goodwill and trust in our community rather than tear it down."

To that end, several faith communities and organizations are engaged in initiatives to address the root causes of violence including, but not limited to, the following:

· Mentoring at-risk Children
o Knoxville Interfaith Network (KIN) addresses bullying in public schools. Youth and Education Action Teams will be hosting forums with youth this summer to address violence.
Specific events

Get involved this Summer to End Violence.....

KIN's Neighborhoods Action Team
The next three months our dates are June 28, July 26, and Aug 23.
7:00-8:30 Immaculate Conception Catholic Church

Youth & Education Action Team
Church of the Savior
7 to 8:30 on the third Tuesday of the month.
June 19, July 17, Aug 21.

KIN's Strengthening Families Action Team
Immaculate Conception Church
7 to 8:30
June 7, July 5, Aug 2.

o KICCUP Churches provide mentoring through KidsHope USA. First Baptist is providing mentoring to 20% of the students at South Knoxville Elementary. St. John’s Lutheran begins a similar initiative this fall. Many others provide volunteers and mentors.

o "There is an immediate need in the Fall 2007 for volunteers and mentors in urban schools.” said Thea Peterson. “We’re challenging more faith communities to step forward to volunteer with at-risk kids through any number of wonderful mentoring groups in Knox County,” said Grant Standefer of the Compassion Coalition. Examples include Amachi, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and KidsHope USA.

Conducting a Clergy Conference on Domestic ViolenceKnoxville’s Family Justice Center will host a conference on domestic violence for all clergy on November 13, 2007. We’re challenging the Faith Community to participate in issues to

prevent domestic violence and child abuse. This event will provide education, training, and resources for faith communities regarding domestic violence and abuse.

· Call to Prayer
o As a result of the “Save our City” rally April 27, we are calling for prayer for the victims of violence
o Prayer gatherings are scheduled in African-American, KICCUP, and KIN faith communities.

· Commitment and invitation to dialogue with government representatives and neighborhoods about the root causes of violence.

For more information about these and other initiatives to end the violence in Knoxville, please contact William D. Shiell at (865) 363-7087 or at shiell@fbcknox.org. Information and links will be posted online at www.fbcknox.org/endviolence.htm.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Truett Seminary

This year is the 10th anniversary of Truett Seminary's first graduating class (my class). Here is a nice article from my friend Marv Knox editor of the Baptist Standard.

By Marv Knox
WACO—Ten years past graduation, Truett Theological Seminary’s first students remain fascinated with—and challenged by—people who receive their ministry.
They’re also still committed to learning how to minister, and they believe new seminary graduates should embrace their calling, they said in reply to a survey reflecting on their decade out of seminary.
Baylor University’s seminary graduated its first class of 33 students in 1997. Almost a third of them replied to the questionnaire. Their answers crossed a spectrum of impressions and ideas, but relationships with people provided a recurrent theme.
“What has surprised me most (in the past 10 years) is that the local church is the place where a pastor might see people at their worst, with all their warts and foibles, and yet it is the very same place where he or she would see people at their absolute best,” noted Brian Brewer, senior pastor at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., who will join the Truett Seminary faculty this summer.
“It is this polarity that has shown me the church (is) both human and divine,” Brewer noted.
“People are a challenge to work with at times,” added James Gardner, associate pastor at McClendon Baptist Church in West Monroe, La. “The best thing about ministry is working with people. The worst thing—if you can really say that—or maybe the most challenging thing about ministry is working with people.”
Acknowledging he wished he had learned “more about working with people” in seminary, Gardner also noted “relationships” was the most valuable lesson he learned in seminary.
“It doesn’t matter how great you preach or how well-educated you are. If people inside and outside the church don’t know you care about and love them, nothing else matters,” he said.
Brewer and Gardner joined Kirk Hatcher, minister to youth at South Main Baptist Church in Houston, in wishing they had learned more about conflict management or relationships in seminary.
Learning more about “dealing with different personalities and how that applies to working in a ministry setting” would have been very helpful, Hatcher said, noting young ministers need to know “how to deal with the overpowering person, the meek, the attention-getter, the refuser … .”
Bill Shiell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., credited Truett Seminary with helping him learn conflict resolution. And the pastor-church relationship provided the focal point for his advice to the latest crop of seminary graduates, following his footsteps by a decade.
“Know yourself, and know how you’re wired,” he urged, responding to a question about advice he would give to new seminary graduates. “Churches are like people because they are people.
“Every church has a DNA, just as every minister does, too. In your first church and/or staff experience, pay attention to how you live out your theology, how you lead and how you work. Then, as you talk to search committees, ask questions based on what you know about yourself and what you know about their DNA. Accept who they are, and minister from that position. …
“For instance, every church has a different definition of pastor and staff leadership. We were trained in seminary to lead one way but not trained how to adjust leadership needs based on the DNA of the congregation and/or staff. Churches could identify what they want and clarify that. You could substitute any issue here, but leadership is one example.”
Gardner offered new graduates a word of warning about relationships: “Sometimes, people will be ugly and nasty and downright mean. But regardless of that, treat them as Christ would—love. It’s easy to get so busy doing the ‘stuff’ of ministry that you can forget what we are sent here for—to reach and tell people of the love of Jesus Christ.”
Steve Wells echoed that theme as he delivered the message to graduates at Truett Seminary’s 2007 commencement.
“Relationships matter. … If you love people enough, eventually, they will hurt you or you will hurt them,” insisted Wells, pastor of South Main Baptist Church in Houston and a member of the Class of ‘97.
“If we have been forgiven, we must forgive others,” he said, noting forgiveness may seem like a quiet act and mundane, but it is a “profound miracle.”
How ministers dispense and accept forgiveness may be the most profound act of their entire ministry, he added, exhorting the new graduates: “Now is the time to take up the role of being heralds of the king, ambassadors of Christ and ministers of reconciliation.”
The ‘97 Truett grads emphasized the importance of deepening their faith and continually learning how to minister better.
“Truett placed a priority on spiritual formation,” recalled Andy Pittman, pastor of First Baptist Church in Lufkin. “I did not fully appreciate the importance of spiritual formation while I was a student.
“Once I was out of seminary, I started serving as a pastor and giving myself away to others. That was when spiritual formation became most important to me. I recognized that I had to have a growing spiritual life in order to be effective as a minister. Truett gave me the foundation and the tools to grow spiritually—and to help others to grow.”
Brewer echoed that sentiment in his response to a question about what he wishes laypeople know. “A pastor’s desk is in a ‘study,’ not an ‘office.’ He or she needs time to do just that, to study. Often, what is the most valuable part of the pastor’s work week is the time he spends in prayer and study.”
Coming to grips with that fact is what has surprised Wells the most during the past 10 years. “I am an extrovert by nature, yet I need 20 to 30 study hours every week for preparation.”
That need never stops, Hatcher said, telling recent grads they will learn from unlikely sources. “You don’t know everything. People you are going to be ministering to and with can help you know more. Let them teach you,” he said, advising, “Never stop learning.”
That’s a lesson the “old” Truett grads learned in Waco, recalled C.V. Hartline III, pastor of Vibrant Covenant Church in Portland, Ore.
The two most valuable lessons he learned in seminary were their late professor Bill Treadwell’s admonition to “remember who you are” and to “be a life-long learner.”
That stuck, Hartline said, crediting Truett Seminary with providing and education that was “a building block for growth” in faith and practical ministry.
Chris Nagel, a chaplain at Giddings State School in Giddings, even offered recent grads a specific area of learning that will strengthen their relationships. “Do a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education,” he advised. “It will help you integrate your personal issues and your seminary education in a real-world setting.”
Chad Prevost, assistant professor of creative writing at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., urged the new grads to innovate and seek relevance.
“We have enough status quo in the ministry—and to some extent, at least, this plays into why the church continues to fade in significance to the culture. Be innovative,” Prevost explained. “I have to agree with the prophetic voice of Tony Campolo: If the church doesn’t find ways to become socially engaged, it will continue to lose relevance.”
Chris Spinks, assistant to the dean and an adjunct professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., urged the ‘07 graduates to stretch themselves and continue to think deeply.
“Even the ‘heady’ stuff matters,” noted Spinks, who will become an acquisitions editor at Wipf & Stock Publishing in Eugene, Ore., this summer. “It makes you a deeper, more thoughtful person, which in turn makes you a better minister.”
And Wells advised them to lean on their call to ministry as they go about serving God’s people.
“Be mystical about church call,” he said. “Go where you feel led. Work like you will be there the rest of your life. Stay until you have a clear sense of call to another place. If you wish you were in another place; know that God knows where you are and when and where you will go next.”

For complete answers to the 1997 Truett Seminary graduates’ answers to the survey, visit our website, www.baptiststandard.com.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Pirate Party

Parker turned 6 last week, and the Pirates of the Rocky Hill Caribbean invaded. Kelly and I thought we learned from previous years’ escapades. A regular reader of this space knows that we have struggled the past couple of years maintaining order, discipline, and the American way with these little boys. So this year, we scaled back. We knew better than to reserve your local Chuck E. Cheese. We’re here to make memories—not rent them. But instead of inviting all the school like we did last year, we just invited 12 boys from his class and neighborhood.

We also prepared much earlier than years’ past. With the “Pirate” theme, we had plenty of supplies to order and construct. A boat, cannons, pirate plates, a cave, treasure chest, palm trees, maps, costumes, hats, and yes Pirate cake. For some reason, the County Courthouse does not rent their cannons any longer, so we had to do without mortar shells. Other than that, we were set. We had the best boat to ever sail Dunbarton Oaks neighborhood. We had everything planned for a wonderful two-hour party from 6:00-8:00 p.m. We planned games, prizes, treasure hunts, Pirate piñata (don’t ask), Pirate flags, and Pirate music. We carefully scripted the order of events for 6 year old boys. When each of the swashbucklers arrived, they were to make a flag, say “AAAARRRRGH” and wait the others. Then we would play a rousing game of musical “X-marks-the-spot,” eat hot dogs, have a treasure hunt, eat cake, open presents, and end with a water balloon fight sending them home soaked and satisfied. That, of course, would be our “thank you” to the parents for sending their child.

Instead, chaos ensued. I knew we were in trouble when the first pirate arrived early. Soon 1200 others followed. Instead of making the required flag, they immediately broke into a sword fight. And then the ultimate nightmare—a storm at sea. The weather had been beautiful all day. At 6:19 p.m., the winds shifted and the hull of the boat collapsed. With thunder all around, we quickly assembled the troops under the tree (I’m not kidding) to beat the helpless piñata, grab as much candy as possible, and duck for cover. Parker quickly abandoned ship when he heard the thunder. As a 6 year old, he knows ALL ABOUT THUNDER. He ran to the house thinking that it was the end of the world. Somehow we convinced him that this was not the Apocalypse. He returned to his birthday party and played a wonderful game of “it’s not really thunder; it’s the cannons!”

Kelly and I made the command decision to abandon the order of operations in case it began to rain. We shifted gears and had the water balloon fight before the wind lifted the palm trees into Loudon County. We gathered then for a quick Pirate story while the hotdogs were being assembled. We were thankful to have the grandparents on food duty, and they helped us manage. With the thunder subsiding and the rain holding off, we began looking for the buried treasure. It took these scrappy boys approximately 2.3 minutes to find the treasure and 30 seconds to tear it apart. It was now 6:50 p.m., and we had finished all the games. After pirate cupcakes, Parker opened presents, and we still had 50 minutes to go with nothing else planned. We improvised, played a game of Pirate limbo in the garage and let them run through the yard having another sword fight. By 7:40, Kelly had enough of the free-for-all, gathered the group for a session of “Duck-duck-pirate,” and closed with “Pirates of the Caribbean”—the movie.

When the little “Captain Jack Sparrow’s” left, the yard was destroyed, the palm trees were in pieces, and the hot dogs cold. The best news-- we survived to enjoy our memories. As the rain fell at 8:20, I was grateful for a creative wife, an excited son, and another year to sympathize with the staff of Chuck E. Cheese. But next year, instead of the “Pirates” theme, I think “Gilligan’s Island” will be more appropriate.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Getting Connected Naturally

Doing What Comes Naturally
Matthew 25:37 “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you something to eat?”

In Jesus’ familiar parable of the sheep and the goats, the focus of interpretation is usually on the rationale for separation: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me.” The sheep and goats conduct themselves differently, and their conduct has eternal consequences. We rightly apply that to our lives.

There is something that sheep and goats share in common in the parable however. Eugene Boring notes that both groups are quite surprised—even dumbfounded—when the shepherd explains the reason for separation. They say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you something to eat?” (25:37) The goats say the same thing, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…..?” (25:44) In both cases, neither one of them knew that they were doing anything good or bad, they just did whatever came naturally to them.

This parable focuses on the significance of the ordinary decisions of life. The only thing that sheep (and goats for that matter) really do well is what comes naturally—the things that they have been trained and conditioned to do; and they do them repeatedly.

At the last judgment people are not rewarded or condemned for the things that they can remember that they have done; they are judged on the unnoticed acts. They are judged on the things that just come naturally.

The most significant question for our lives is not, “What would Jesus do?” Even more critical evaluation is required. We must look into our hearts and schedules asking, “Whom do I ignore when I am not even thinking about it? Whom do I miss because it comes naturally for me to rush by? Who never gets the cup of cold water because my calendar says it’s time for a meeting? Who doesn’t get the invitation to dinner because I am not sure if it would be safe to do something like that?”

The power of the cross and the resurrection is that it changes even what comes naturally. Christ’s work changes the way we think about what we do and the way we do things. He has the power to take our lives, our record-keeping selves, and change them into the kind of sheep who take in his brothers and say to him, “Lord, we had no idea we were doing that, but thank you O God for giving us your kind of deliverance, your kind of suffering, your kind of love, your kind of shepherding.”

An excerpt from Sessions with Matthew, forthcoming from Smyth and Helwys publishing, Summer 2007.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

God Works with All Things-- Message

On Wednesday, I shared this message with our church regarding the Virginia Tech tragedy. You can listen to it at


Save Our City Prayer Rally

Save Our City – People of Faith Stand Together Against Violence in the Community
The Knoxville Interdenominational Christian Ministerial Alliance has joined with religious leaders, members and organizations from across Knoxville to invite broad participation in an important effort to address rising violence in our city. “As people of faith, our concern has been awakened…with regard to the senseless and unnecessary killings that have occurred in our city.”
THIS Tuesday, April 24th, you are invited to join leaders and members of religious groups from across the city as we gather at the City-County Building in downtown Knoxville for a press conference (5:30-5:45 PM), followed by a community prayer vigil at First Baptist Church (6:00-6:45 PM) and a presentation at the Knoxville City Council meeting (7:00 PM).
Next weekend, April 27-29, communities of faith across the city are urged to display green ribbons and take time during worship to pray for an end to violence in our community.
In coming weeks, community conversations and other actions will be held to consider the root causes of violence among us, as well as what each one of us alone and all of us together can do to help end it.
KICMA is joined in this effort by Knoxville Inner City Churches United for People,
Knoxville Interfaith Network, and the Knoxville Ministerial Alliance. Join us!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

College Students--Crisis and Hope

This has been a rough few weeks on the college campuses in our country. We have seen what a handful of people can do to shame, change, and destroy the lives of innocents. At Duke University, one woman and a rogue prosecutor changes the lives of a LaCrosse Team. In New York, the bigoted Don Imus and his sidekick treat the Rutgers women’s team as just another object to be scorned. In Blacksburg, a student destroys the lives of 32 students and mars their families forever.

What’s happening here? Each incident is different, but all have a common element. College students whose lives are changed by a handful of people wreaking havoc. When placed alongside each other, one act of violence builds and reaches a climax with killing. In a very short window of time, we catch a glimpse of the ongoing issues in our society, and the intersection of these events is the university campus.

Jesus warned us that angry words were just as harmful as weapons. We have known that for a long time. But what remains to be seen is whether we can stop the spread of this kind of vitriol, if we can do more than simply control weapons but if people can get a hold on culture that seems to glorify hate, anger, and retribution toward others.

This was not the first time people confronted anger and hostility toward others. In the book of Acts, we read of one trial scene after another when ethnic Jewish and Gentile people were at odds with one another. In Ephesus, the tensions were so heated that it took a magistrate to calm them down before the violence got out of hand.

In light of what he learned in the real world of violence, Paul said, this does not have the last word. He places the world’s systems on trial and announces that the charges against humanity have been dropped because of the power of the cross. A handful of people may seem to control these things, but one Person is really in charge. The cross is the beginning of the last word. He asks in Romans 8, “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns?” he asks rhetorically. The power of the cross says that the past actions of people do not determine the present. God’s work in the past on the cross and his work in the future to bring about the redemption of the world changes the present of our lives. God has not given up on the world, even on those who seek to harm others.

In my view, this solution is being seen ironically on the college campus. In 2001, two women defied the odds and went into the heart of hate, vengeance and spite against women. Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry left the safe confines of Waco, Texas, where Heather had recently graduated and Dayna was finishing a degree to become missionaries among the Taliban. People thought they were stupid; they felt it was their mission. These two women were kidnapped in Afghanistan but became examples of what college students are doing. Despite the hate, blame, arrogance, and vitriol hurled at innocent lives, they are ignoring the voices and rushing into the action. The world has hope because of many more like them who know that kind of strength that only comes through the power of the cross.

Getting Connected to Blacksburg

As the hearts of a nation go out to the people of Blacksburg, I am reminded of Jeremiah’s words,“For I know the thoughts and plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:10-14).

When Jeremiah spoke these words, the plans had changed. Israelites were deported. Invaders slaughtered innocent lives. Families were torn apart.The lessons from centuries ago still apply today. In the midst of tragedy, I think we find what it means to live by faith as the people of God. By reflecting on Jeremiah’s great words we understand that the people of God today should do three things.

Expect God’s plan to be accomplished.Obviously, the exile wasn’t part of the Israelites plans; and neither were Cho Seung-Hui’s actions part of the plans for Blacksburg. But there is One whose plan transcends the deeds of gunmen, and that is the Living God. His plan is that we will have a hope and a future. God’s will was not that Cho Seung-Hui would carry out this heinous act, but neither did God step into human freedom and prevent the action. There are numerous examples in scripture to show paradoxically sovereignty and freedom work together. Even God did not stop Roman guards from crucifying his own Son. God does however work in the midst of the tragedy to secure a hope and future for everyone.

Live God’s grace redemptively.If we have been the people who are expecting God’s plan to be accomplished, then we will live God’s grace redemptively. The nation will respond to this act in some way. As believers, we serve an even higher calling. We will be people who live righteously, stand for justice, and at the same time, exercise God’s grace among people.Our tendency is to cocoon ourselves safely into our homes, neighborhoods, and universities, fearing the outsiders or the mentally unstable. But Jeremiah reminds us in 29:5, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Get connected because God calls us to live among all the people. In so doing, we find a chance to share that grace with others. We show them what true salt and light do—we enliven the world around us. As people of grace, learn to live with people and show them the good news of the grace of Jesus Christ. 3.

Seek God individually.When we have expected God’s plan to work and lived out his grace, then we seek God individually. “Then you will call to me,” says Jeremiah, and “seek me and find me,” and the Lord promises, “I will be found by you.” Jeremiah tells us, in our times on the backside of Babylon, or a modern tragedy, we cry, weep, and mourn; but we also seek and pray to the God who has a plan. That plan is to come to us and bring us back. What God wants from us is a simple response—to seek God. The emphasis is not on figuring God out but obediently praying and seeking him wherever life takes you. “I will be found by you,” says the Lord in verse 14 because I have never left you. Notice that I have already come to you through believers on the scene and churches and communities of faith lovingly standing by the side of grieving loved ones.

In 1999, 9 people died as American flight 1420 crash landed at the Little Rock Airport. You may remember that on board that plane were 25 members of the Ouachita Baptist University faculty and choir. I had a friend who was supposed to be on that flight but had to change flights at the last minute. Somehow in the middle of the tragedy, God used the survivors to help rescue the wounded and many others who were trapped in the burning plan preventing further things from happening. Others such as James Harrison died while trying to save others. On “Good Morning America” the next day, Diane Sawyer interviewed music professor Charles Fuller, and she asked him about the experience. Fuller declared, “There are times in life where your faith has to mean something. It can’t be something that you just talk about. It has to be something that empowers you to live life.” (Trennis Henderson, Baptist Standard, 6/9/99)

Today, let your faith mean something. Your faith can be a part of God’s great plan.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Take Me out to the Ballgame

“Take me out to the ballgame,” never sounded as good as this past Saturday at the ballpark. After 7 weeks of intense and grueling practices, The Defending T-Ball Champion Little League Team “The Braves” opened the 2007 Season. The team, marred in the off season by a rampant Kool-Aid Scandal, recovered and had a remarkable showing against their rivals, the “A’s.” As many people know, the scandal began following the World Series of T-Ball when a trainer allegedly began to distribute grape Kool-Aid to members of the team to provide off-season strength and power. This, of course, is banned by Little League Rules 4.01-5784. A committee was appointed to investigate the allegations, and they discovered that the Kool-Aid had been received by the team but no one ever ingested the beverage. The team acted as if the scandal never happened. After an opening out by the leadoff hitter, the second batter, Parker Shiell, emerged with a double off the first pitch he saw. He went 3 for 3 with a double and two singles.

If the Kool-Aid scandal weren’t enough, this year is the big transition from T-Ball to the Coach Pitch League. Coach Andy Beam, spoke to the press following the game, “The team looked good against the A’s. It’s really all about hitting and defense. We struggled in the infield with a few bobbles, but it’s only the first game of the season.”

This marks Coach Beam’s 51st Little League Team he’s coached. He began coaching in Middle School for the Minor Little League affiliate of the Blue Jays. After a stunning 9-0 record that year, he’s never looked back. He’s successfully coached such Major Leaguers as Daryl Strawberry, Alex Rodriguez, Hank Aaron, “Little” Andy Beam, Chipper Jones, David Beam, and John Beam.

“I’m awfully proud of this team,” said Beam, “we really are looking better than any team I’ve coached at this age. We have several likely All-Star caliber players here. We’ve put the scandal behind us, and we’re looking to the future. This game was a real test of our fortitude.”

Beam’s wife Meredith is just wild about the season. “I think if we can really come together as parents, this can be the best Little League year yet. It really all comes down to the post-game snack. If we can remain unified in healthy snacking, then the game will take care of itself. These parents are really committed to healthy snacking this year, and I can see an improvement in their energy level.”

No parents were available to comment on the validity of these events, or this story. But by all accounts, they had fun. Let’s play ball!

Saturday, April 07, 2007


Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sleeping Drake

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Family Photo

Drake Shiell

Hanging in There

“Hanging in there” always seemed like a normal prayer request for the Shiell baby. He kicked so hard on a trip to Jacksonville, Florida, that he put Kelly on bed rest when we returned home to Knoxville. We asked people to stop praying for Drake to “kick up his heels,” and instead to hold on. After Monday, I realized that apparently God and Drake took those requests literally. We arrived at “Aint Mary’s” dark and early at 6:15 a.m. (Whose idea was it to spring forward on the second weekend in March?) We assumed, “Surely this baby will not take as long as Parker,” who spent 12 hours traveling from womb to world. This little guy traveled at duck rather than tortoise speed.

Despite the many phone calls to the church, emails to the hospital, and concerns along the way, Drake was not to be prodded. He wanted to spend one more day enjoying the warmth of Kelly. I tried every trick in the trade that I knew. I fed Kelly as many ice chips and popsicles as the hospital would allow. I even tried the old superstitious-preacher trick. When at the hospital, Murphy’s Law of Pastoring is that the people whom you want to see arrive the minute after you leave. So I lapped St. Mary’s about 10 times. I greeted every television viewer in for cataract surgery that I could find; I even found one church member in the ER who needed prayer. And he prayed for me! I guess he could tell by the look on my face that I needed it. He suggested that I eat something in the cafeteria, but not even food would force Drake to arrive.

At 6:00 p.m., according to the nurse, we had at least 2 hours to go. But somehow when the doctor appeared at 6:15, Drake was one cough away from birth. We called the Big Brother and the Grandparents, all of whom had been circling the region. Three pushes later, he arrived safe and sound—and right on time—almost 12 hours after we arrived.

After Mom, Dad, a couple of nurses, and a doctor, Parker was the first to meet Franklin Drake Shiell. He climbed into the bed, surprised to see a brown-headed boy poking through a blanket, and went outside into the hall to announce the news to the grandparents. He only needed one word-- “Boy!” to capture the anticipation, excitement, gratefulness, euphoria, and love of a waiting family.

Sometimes you do get what you pray for, especially when all you can do is hang on. Thank God, it’s definitely worth the wait.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Doctor's Office

It’s getting harder to understand what’s happening at the doctor’s office. According to the News-Sentinel Monday, we are healthcare illiterate. Healthcare providers are replacing verbal signs with visual symbols to help people find their way through the hospital or medical building. If they can find the office, more people misunderstand a physician’s or nurse’s diagnosis and treatment. Medical professionals now recommend that patients ask three basic questions each time they go to the doctor.
1. What is my main problem?
2. What do I need to do?
3. Why is that important?

Lent is a time for questions, godly self-examination, and confession of the wounds of life. I think of it a bit like a 40 day visit to the doctor’s office. Imagine if we approached these 40 days with the same questions for the Great Physician. If we asked, His answers might be--

Our main problem: me
What I need to do:
Open my eyes to see the needs in front of me
Listen to the voices of correction
Exerience the forgiveness of God
Act obediently even when I don’t feel like it
Why is that important:
A relationship is not complete without daily reflection, communication,
and sacrifice for the One with whom we have a relationship

That’s why during the season of Lent we need the symbols and signs of the season just as much as the verbal instructions that are printed in the Bible. We use the symbols of a Cross, the Bread, the Cup, the Table, and the Body of Christ to point the way to change. When we ask these questions and listen for His answers, we are able to live abundantly in our relationship with Christ. I’ll be looking for you in the waiting room.

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