Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Baptist or Methodist?

From my earliest memories, I have been a Baptist. The first church I can recall was First Baptist Church in Childersburg, AL, where we lived with my grandmother while my Dad was serving in the Pacific during WW II. When our family moved to Birmingham after the war, I made my profession of faith and was baptized in Dawson Memorial Baptist Church. When I went to Georgia Tech, First Baptist Church in Atlanta became my church (this was before Stanley!). When I transferred to Samford University (then Howard College), I was back at Dawson Memorial. When I went to Seminary in Louisville, I joined the staff at Shawnee Baptist Church and served in several roles including interim pastor. When I started my doctoral work, I became pastor of First Baptist Church in Crothersville, IN (an American Baptist, but still very much Baptist). When I went to Campbell College (now University), the First Baptist Church of Buies Creek was my home church (even though I often was away preaching in churches in the area). When I moved to Nashville to work at the Sunday School Board of the SBC, Immanuel Baptist Church became my home church. When I retired 25 years later and moved to Dandridge, TN, First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, TN became my spiritual home for more than a decade. Last Sunday I became a Methodist, joining the First United Methodist Church of Oviedo, FL. Generally I would say, Baptists gradually "left" me through the years rather than I left the Baptists. While there is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church in the Orland area and I wish I could have joined there, it was just too far away for me to be actively engaged in its work and ministries. The Methodists required me to attend a series of new member orientation sessions, something no Baptist church had ever required of me. For me, the issue now is no longer what branch of the Christian faith I am associated with. It is more which believers will open their hearts, minds, and arms to all those who seek to know Christ, embrace His love, and follow Him in a loving and inviting way.

Monday, January 11, 2016


As I have been reflecting about this occasion over the last couple of months, I have noted one of the peculiarities of our human experience. So much of our history is personal. Our histories are continuous in terms of our own experiences from birth to death—though we certainly may have lapses of memory that remove many of the experiences from our consciousness. At new junctures in life, we find our experiences intersecting with new actors on the stage. People enter the stage on which the drama of our lives are being acted out. These people come from off stage, where the history of their off-stage experiences often are unknown to us.  As long as the stage lights are on, the interactions, the dialogs, the exchanges, the experiences of togetherness are noted, remembered, celebrated, cherished, and sometimes memorialized. As actors move off the stage, they move out of the spotlights and out of the shared “stage” experiences. Their voices are no longer part of the dialogues. Their lives continue off-stage, out of the common experiences, away from the script of the on-stage dialog.

The imagery I am drawing on is a little unsettling. For any of us to claim a stage on which we act out the core story may seem very egocentric—but in reality, this central consciousness of self is the way most of us live. If other characters only pop on and off the stages that are our lives, they easily become bit-players who exist only to make the main character (ourselves) the star. But all of us know that there are parents, friends, guides, supporters, spouses, encouragers, enablers that have laid the solid foundations upon which we have built our lives; and without even one of these, our lives would have taken different directions or would have suffered from the faulty foundations of self-interest.

I could name six people who played especially supportive roles for me during my Baptist Sunday School Board/LifeWay experiences. These people opened vocational doors for me to come to the Sunday School Board. They affirmed me, my gifts, and my work. They opened the doors for advancement and greater responsibility. They took risks to support, encourage, and even protect me in the changing culture and new directions of a new regime. Max Caldwell was one of those six people; and he himself suffered some of the consequences from which he and others had protected me.

When I entered the stage called the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1978, several main characters were already on stage. Harry Piland had recently become the head of the Sunday School Department, the area that was central in the mission of the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. By coincidence, I was attending a conference in preparation for writing a series of teaching materials for the Adult Life and Work Bible study curriculum when Harry Piland was being elected Director of the Sunday School Department. Coincidently, Harry’s wife, Pat, was at that writers conference and was assigned to write the teaching materials for the very set of lessons that I was writing. Harry and Pat were major actors on the stage of my life as I transitioned from being a professor at Campbell University to becoming a curriculum design editor at the Sunday School Board. By further coincidence (or God’s providence), the manager of the Adult Life and Work section was Ernest Hollaway. Ernest had served as a missionary in Japan; and during the summer between my junior and senior years in college, I visited in his home in Japan as I was traveling to Taiwan as a student summer missionary. The editor who enlisted me to write, Clifford Tharp, had been one of my closest friends in college and seminary.

If God had been preparing me for my transition from college professor to Sunday School Board employee, Harry, Pat, Ernest, and Cliff were central actors on the stage at that time. One of the other major actors, who made his first appearance on the stage from out of the blue, was Max Caldwell. I confess that I have very little knowledge of where Max came from in becoming the director of the Youth-Adult Group at the Sunday School Board. I think Max had been a Sunday School field service consultant. I vaguely remember having a brief interview with him when I visited the Sunday School Board in view of an invitation to accept a position as design editor in the Adult Life and Work Section. Knowing little about the organizational structure at the BSSB, Max was just another new face to me. Later, of course, Max became a central character in developing my role at the Sunday School Board.

A little more than three years after I came to the Sunday School Board, a major organizational change was made in the Youth Sunday School area. Two editorial managers were shifted out of their positions, and the two editorial sections were merged into one section. While I had taught a couple of courses in youth ministry while at Campbell University, I certainly wasn’t a “youthie” by any means; but Max made the decision to move me into the editorial manager position for all Youth Sunday School curriculum materials. Frankly, I think I was chosen to gain managerial experience for an approaching retirement of my Adult Sunday School curriculum manager. Max, however, trusted me with this new level of responsibility; and for the next three years I worked with some wonderful youth specialists like Myrte Veach, Josephine Pile, Judy Wooldridge, Becky Martin, Louis Hanks, Ken Parker, and many others. Of course, behind all of this change, Max was facing critical issues that I’m sure kept him awake at night. As the conservative leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention began to focus on its institutions and agencies, Youth-Adult Sunday School and its leaders, like Max Caldwell, were the focus of many conservative concerns. Some of us were shifted to less visible and less influential positions. Some, I assume, like Max, were given exit packages. It was a difficult time, and the long-term impact generally has been negative for the Sunday School Board—now LifeWay Christian Resources—and also negative for many of its employees. Max was an exquisite example of a Christian servant who suffered humbly and quietly in the face of changes that significantly impacted his life. Unfortunately, those who followed him made choices that have weakened the institution we all sought to grow and strengthen. Today the institution into which we invested our lives is but a shadow of what once was; but the pride of those like Max who invested themselves in the work of serving the churches and seeing them grow and thrive should not be overlooked. Max has now received the final commendation cited in Matthew 25:23: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.” My hope, for Max, is this: that one of the things for which he has been put in charge in heaven are those 18 holes on the Everlasting Golf Club laid out beside the still waters.

And to Max’s family, I leave this familiar Old Testament blessing:
The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine upon you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)

Friday, December 25, 2015


I have just completed reading a book entitled “Strangers No More: Memoirs by Lucy S. Herring” (Carlton Press, 1983).  I’m not sure how the book found its way into my library—perhaps it was a book my daughter contributed when we moved into our shared Florida home recently. The book was signed by the author: “Think big! Your thoughts will determine your destiny, Lucy Herring, February, 1983.”

Lucy Herring was an African-American educator who had an interesting life and who made a significant impact on the education of the African-American community. While I expect that few will be aware of her and her legacy, I found a couple of especially significant connections with my own pilgrimage.  The first connection was that she served early in her career as an educational coordinator in Harnett County, North Carolina. While her service was many years prior to my teaching years at Campbell University (in fact, I had been at Campbell for three years and had been in Nashville five years by 1983 when this book was published), Campbell is in Harnett County and is only a few miles from Lillington, where Ms. Herring worked. Her work was foundational in opening doors of opportunity for African-American students; and I had some very fine students at Campbell, who were evidence that doors of opportunity have been opened by people like Lucy Herring.

The most significant connection, however, was a stage-of-life connection that Ms. Herring faced at the time of her retirement. While I cannot apply her statement about retirement totally to my own experience (see page 166 for Lucy Herring’s list), she did inspire me with some perspectives that are helpful to those who are retiring or have retired. Here are my adaptions of Lucy Herring’s experience that retirees have to deal with in the significant transition from employment to retirement.

1.     Serving in a new role of second parent—that of a grandparent.
2.     Living in new accommodations.
3.     Living in a culturally mixed community.
4.     Being far removed from the kind of church of which you have been a member.
5.     Having to find new service providers to assist you.
6.     Having to make new friends (especially when your recall is declining).
7.     Living in a new city with a vastly different climate from the one to which you have been acclimated.

Lucy Herring captured a lot of the challenges that I have been facing in the last six months. Her spirit in addressing these issues have inspired me and challenged me to view these days as a new venture that requires readjustments, patience, supportive family and friends, and trust in God that all is working together for good.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


(Hymn Tune: Gabriel's "Higher Ground")

The church is strongest when we see
Its members all have bowed the knee
And raised to God the fervent prayer
That all the earth God’s love may share.
Like rushing wind and roaring fire,
God's Spirit will the church inspire
To kneel in prayer this very hour
And ask for wonder-working power.

The church is richest when it gives--
When in commitment truly lives
A spirit of humility
That fears sin more than poverty.
Like rushing wind and roaring fire, 
God's Spirit will the church inspire
To freely give this very hour
Releasing wonder-working power.

The church is greatest when it works
In hidden places where sin lurks,
In distant lands where ign'rance reigns,
Midst urban hovels' desperate pains.
Like rushing wind and roaring fire,
God's Spirit will the church inspire
To dedicate this very hour
Its hands for wonder-working power.

The church is happiest when it sings,
When voices praise, when clarion rings
Above the pandemonium 
The joyful song of God's dear Son.
Like rushing wind and roaring fire, 
God's Spirit will the church inspire
To advocate this very hour
Good news of wonder-working power.

Let wonder-working power rest
On each of us, and with our best
We'll pray, we'll give, we'll work, we'll sing
'Til all the world declares You King.
Like rushing wind and roaring fire, 
Your Spirit will the church inspire
To venture forth this very hour
And live in wonder-working power.

 © Copyright 1995 Michael Fink
 Used by permission

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


(I found this letter in an old office file. It was written by Merle Craigmiles, a member of the first church I served as pastor. I found it so touching that I wanted to share it with you. It uniquely starts with a “P.S.” and addresses the question that I borrowed as the title of this post.)

P.S. This is full of mistakes and scratched up pretty bad, but I didn’t have the time or patience to rewrite it. I know if I laid it aside to redo it, you would never get it.

Dear Mike,

Your sermon Sunday morning reminded me of something I wrote more than thirty years ago (about 1942). At that time we were living in Huntington, West Virginia. I was a member of Temple Baptist Church. We always spoke of the church building as the Temple. My hometown was just about fifty miles away, Portsmouth, Ohio. So many times, instead of going to church, we would go home. I didn’t consider myself a very faithful church member.

On one of these trips home we went visiting out in the country one Sunday evening. It was summer; she had chairs out on the lawn. When she invited us in, we said, “Let’s just sit out here.” In a few minutes a church bell started ringing. The sound of that church bell did something to me. I had a real homesick feeling to be back in church. When I explained to my friend how I felt, she said, “Let’s go. We have a good preacher. We have as good singers as you would find in any church.”

When we went inside the church, the first thing I noticed was a plaque on the wall that read:
     If every member of this church
     Was a member just like me,
     What kind of church
     Would this church be?

The preacher’s sermon was good. I enjoyed the singing so much; also the fellowship of the friendly people. But the verse I read on that plaque stayed with me.

I would sit in the Temple at Huntington, West Virginia and have a mental picture of what the church would look like if all the members were like me.

One day I went home from church and wrote this down. I called it:

Something to Think About

Then I thought of the Heavenly Father
as He looks down from His throne on High,
and I wondered what He thought
of Christians such as I.

I thought of the sorrow ‘twould give Him
I thought of the anguish, the pain
He would feel He had sent Christ Jesus
To die on Calvary, in vain.

Then I thought of the joy ‘twould give Him
If we were all like the faithful few;
Now friends, think this over,
What kind of Christian are you?

                     Merle Craigmiles  

Thursday, September 3, 2015


The following passage from Eric Metaxas’ massive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer shows how Bonhoeffer’s obedience to God was forward-oriented and zealous and free. At the age of 72, I find much to contemplate in Bonhoeffer’s reflections.

“In recent years we have become increasingly familiar with the thought of death. We surprise ourselves by the calmness with which we hear of the death of one of our contemporaries. We cannot hate it as we used to for we have discovered some good in it, and have almost come to terms with it. Fundamentally we feel that we really belong to death already, and that every new day is a miracle. It would probably not be true to say that we welcome death (although we all know that weariness which we ought to avoid like the plague), we are too inquisitive for that—or, to put it more seriously, we should like to see something more of the meaning of our life’s broken fragments. . . . We still love life, but I do not think that death can take us by surprise now. After what we have been through during the war, we hardly dare admit that we should like death to come to us, not accidentally and suddenly through some trivial cause, but in the fullness of life and with everything at stake. It is we ourselves, and not outward circumstances, who make death what it can be: a death freely and voluntarily accepted.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Good Samaritan Test

I recently posted about a boy we discovered while driving through our new neighborhood. The boy had been locked in an animal cage by his brother and left by the road across the street from their house. We set him free, but we didn’t get the full story. Yesterday the boy from the cage and one of his friends came by after school to visit our grandson. Soon both of the mothers of the visiting boys came by for a visit as well. We finally got the full story, and it turns out that things weren’t as they appeared.

The boy and his brother actually had been collaborating in an experiment to see how people would react to a child locked in a cage on the side of a road. (Sounds similar to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, doesn’t it?) While we were told that the older brother had locked his brother in the cage and left him beside the road, actually the boys had collaborated in the stunt. The younger boy got in the cage, and the older boy hid across the street and watched to see what would happen.

When their mother learned that the new neighbors (us) had been drawn into this stunt and thought that it was a real dispute between the brothers, she was embarrassed. She knew that the stunt was real enough to allow people to misjudge her family life. On the other hand, the mom seemed proud of the boy’s “test” of their neighbors. She talked in particular about an older man who walked right by and hardly gave the caged child a notice.

Obviously we passed “the test” because we stopped and set the boy “free.” The test was a “charade,” but it was realistic enough to make us think that the situation was one of real need.

“Tricks” like this probably don’t advance people’s willingness to take a risk and offer help to people in need. On the other hand, is it not better to offer help even if the situation is a hoax than to turn aside and leave a true victim lying by the road in need of help?

Our society often is short in addressing obvious needs because we have a hard time assessing genuine needs. We faced this dilemma frequently in the benevolence ministry of our church in Jefferson City, TN. We met on Tuesday mornings and generally had 3-5 interviews with people who had asked for assistance from the church. They needed help with paying utility bills, buying food, getting transportation to a doctor’s office, or some similar kind of need. We found a few hucksters along the way, and we marked them off the list of those whom we had helped who seemed to have genuine needs. We may have judged unfairly occasionally, but we still provided well over $20,000 of assistance each year.

The old saying, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” might be a way of applying the “Good Samaritan Test” in many situations. I’d rather be a fool for Christ’s sake in helping a few who might be exploiting the system so that many with genuine needs might be helped.