The Unmistakable Fingerprints of God

The story of Jacob wrestling with God tells the unsettling, yet reassuring story that out of our deepest struggles come the greatest blessings. Jacob wrestled with God all night, and only after God dislocated Jacob's hip, an injury with which he limped the rest of his life, did he receive the blessings of God he so deeply wanted.

The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, financial disaster, the failure of a marriage, a life-threatening illness; all of these and many more events may impose painful experiences that cripple us for the rest of our lives. But in the healing of time, like Jacob, we may realize that without those scars, we would never have entered into a new relationship of blessings with God.

As Nathan Nettleton put it: "And many of us, too, can witness that our greatest blessings and our deepest scars came from one and the same experience."

He continued, "...the events that inflict upon us wounds that leave us limping for the rest of our lives have at times been the events that we also look back at with a measure of gratitude for the way they have reshaped us and borne fruits of grace within us that would not otherwise have been possible. And as we recognize that we often see in those same events the unmistakable fingerprints of God, if not in the causing of the events, then at least in the ways they were utilized in our lives. Am I right?"

Up until the all night struggle with God, Jacob was a rascal! Hardly a paragon of virtue, he tricked, deceived, and cheated his way through life; betraying his own father and brother. But after the struggle, in which he became broken for life, Jacob became a new man; blessed by God and able to bring healing to the broken relationships in his life.

Prophets, Priests and Kings

July 28, 2008

I backed into computing in 1977. In the early 1980s, I wrote my doctoral dissertation at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta exploring the great potential of computing technology in ministry. That was when PCs were rarely found in church offices.

My doctoral committee demanded that I have a “theological rationale” to anchor the project in the roots of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Otherwise, I should be doing the dissertation at Kudzu University, not one of the finest theology schools in America. Many of the professors had doubts PCs were more than toys, and were convinced they would never end up in churches, if they survived at all. I recall Dr. Doug Hix, my wise advisor and mentor, saying, “Bill, if you cannot answer, ‘What in the world do computers have to do with ministry?’ your dissertation will never be approved.”

It was challenging to blend the use of new technology into the historical-theological traditions of the church. Trying to find a “proof text” such as “Thou shalt use thy Blackberry to stay in touch with thy parishioners” proved futile.

So I explored the roles ministers fulfill, and sought to show how personal computers and technology could (and should) be used as a tool of ministry. My rationale was that ministers fulfill one of three (and sometimes all three) roles of prophet, priest and king. I used Moses, Abraham, and David to illustrate the priestly, prophetic and kingly-administrative roles of ministry.

I never imagined the impact personal computers would have upon our world. But I am glad I was there to see this new resource born and grow up to where it is today. Ministers, who have the same mind-set as engineers, have become quite comfortable and innovative with technology. Churches may now carry their message to the uttermost parts of the earth without leaving the sanctuary.

Last week, I posted my first blog, and have had responses from all over the world; including a response from Columbia Theological Seminary, where my techno-ministry began.

Like my colleagues, I sometimes wear the prophetic hat, speaking forth God’s Word; sometimes the priestly hat, pouring oil upon troubled waters; and sometimes wearing the kingly hat, conducting the administrative aspects of the Kingdom. Any tool that helps us do our work more efficiently and effectively helps us become more faithful stewards.

From the Quote Garden
“After growing wildly for years, the field of computing appears to be reaching its infancy.”
~John Pierce

Tidings of Antiquity

(May 18, 2004)

Cicero wrote, “History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.”

The tidings of antiquity revitalized memories of my childhood last Sunday as I journeyed back to Concord Baptist Church in Calhoun County, Mississippi.

When I was a child, my parents made a pilgrimage every third Sunday in May to the all-day-singing and dinner-on-the-ground at Concord. The adults sang Stamps Baxter gospel music in the morning and Sacred Harp music after lunch, served outdoors. My bothers and sisters and cousins by the dozens romped in and out of the church and through the nearby cemetery where my Jenkins grandparents were buried. It was at Concord I realized how many relatives I had, both living and dead.

Every time I go to Calhoun County, I learn something about my ancestors, and ultimately about myself. Calvin Jenkins, my grandfather, died in 1949, the year after I was born. I have no recollection of him, other than through pictures and family legends. His father died when Calvin was only 16. He lived life in hard times amid difficult circumstances. Calvin found spiritual strength at Concord, because I knew he, too, traveled back to Concord every third Sunday in May after leaving Calhoun County in the mid 1920s.

I discovered files this week that recorded my grandfather’s baptism was August 21, 1897. My grandmother, Ann Vanlandingham Jenkins, was baptized a year earlier, September 19, 1896. They joined Concord Church in 1898. Calvin was a lay leader at Concord for a quarter century. Each of their surviving dozen children, plus three more from Calvin’s first marriage (that ended when his first wife died), were baptized at Concord. “Lester Jenkins. Baptized: August 15, 1918.” That was my father.

If “sins of the fathers” may be visited upon their children for generations, then “faith of our fathers” must have an equal, but positive power. The spiritual legacy of Calvin and Ann Jenkins’ faith lives on in their offspring, transcending generations. This serves as a reminder that our loyalty to Christ’s Church is not confined to time and space.

Through the eyes of antiquity, personal faith lives on, illuminating reality, vitalizing memories, and providing guidance in daily life.

Hail Mary, Chosen Servant

December 19, 2005

As a child growing up in the Bible belt, Protestants were taught to beware of Catholicism. I assume they were taught a similar caution regarding us. I shall never forget the day Charles Goldsmith, a Catholic classmate who lived one street over from me, and I decided to ride our bikes to each other’s churches. That was my first venture inside St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Yazoo City. And just as Rev. Goodbody had warned in numerous sermons, there were all the statues (idols, I was sure) surrounding the ornate sanctuary. What worried me most was the sanctuary at the Assured Brethren Church was plain in comparison. Maybe I was a bit envious.

As we left St. Mary’s, Charles stopped at a small font in the vestibule. Charles dipped his fingers into the water and sprinkled some water on him. “What’s that?” I asked in pure innocence and ignorance. “Holy water,” Charles said. “We baptize infants with this.” That’s when I knew I had something to show him. “If you think that is a baptistery, wait until you see ours!” And off we went on our bicycle tour of Yazoo City’s churches.

If I have matured in any area of my life, I hope it is a spiritual maturity that does not demand others must believe and behave as I do. Such insistence on conformity is based upon fear, not faith.

That is why I offer a hearty Protestant “Hail Mary” this Christmas. Mary has much to teach all of us. It’s OK, my Protestant friends, to say it, despite our learned reservations. It’s right there in the King James Bible. “And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, (Mary), thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” Luke 1:28

First, Mary was an ordinary person. God has a way of selecting the most uncommon folk to do His best work. The angel told Mary, “Thou art highly favored”. You and I are highly favored to have a Father of grace.

Secondly, Mary teaches us that being God’s chosen does not mean our path will be easy. Mary taught us what the angel meant when he said, “the Lord is with thee”. And the Lord is with us, through the good and bad that will befall us. Mary was chosen to conceive a child of the Holy Spirit. Both then and now, many could and cannot grasp the magnitude of that fact. How many of us would want our integrity called into question, not just for a lifetime, but for all eternity? Riding from Nazareth to Bethlehem in her ninth month, having her baby born in a stable, probably becoming widowed at a young age are not what most folks envision when they hear “You are God’s chosen”. Then the greatest trial of all was Mary watching her beloved son Jesus go through the mockery of a trial, witness his scourging, and endure every parent’s nightmare, watching her child die. Nowhere do we hear her complain, or ask, “Why me?”

Finally, having taught us how to faithfully complete our course as “God’s chosen”, I imagine Mary would be the last to seek our praise. But that does not mean she doesn’t deserve credit for being the vessel who brought our Savior to us. The angel spoke a truth: “Blessed at thou among women.”

A final thought. Maybe one of the outcomes of 9-11-01 is that Protestants and Catholics, Baptists and Methodists, high church and low church do not see each other as the enemy any longer. Maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from each other, if we have the courage to overcome our fears.

Yes Virginia, There is a Christmas”

December 12, 2005

Dear Pastor Bill:

I am 8 years old. I am confused. The stores no longer display Christmas. They call it “holiday”, or something else.
Some of my little friends say there is no Christmas. Papa says "If you see it in "The E-Vangel" it's so."
Please tell me the truth, is there a really a Christmas?

Virginia O'Hanlon
115 West 95th Street

My Dearest Virginia,

Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

How futile it is that everyone wants to change “Christmas” to “Holiday”. Don’t they know that Holiday means “Holy Day”? Christmas is one of the Holiest Days of the year.

Yes, Virginia, there is Christmas. Christmas exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Christmas! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, and no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

From the very First Christmas, when God gave us the greatest Gift we shall ever receive, Christmas has been a time of great wonder, joy and love. The heavens filled with the songs of angels. And God chose to come to us as an innocent child, like you, Virginia. It is your childlike faith that will keep Christmas alive forevermore.

Not believe in Christmas! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the Nativity scenes on Christmas eve to see in baby Jesus the wonderful love of God, but even if they did not see, what would that prove? Even if nobody sees, that is no sign that there is no Christmas. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

If there is no Christmas, then why does everyone taking time off from work, visiting families and friends, and exchanging gifts? To be consistent, shouldn’t those who protest Christmas be at their jobs, slaving away while I get some wet kisses from my grandchildren on Christmas morning? Now if they would do that, I might believe they have integrity. But many will take leave the last two weeks of the year, which, without the Christmas they despise, they would not be able to do.

You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

The reason there is no Nativity scene in our government this year is not because of separation of church and state, it’s because they cannot find “three wise men” in the whole city. Remember Virginia, “Wise Men still seek Him”.

No Christmas! Thank God He lives, and He lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, He will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

F. P. Church
New York Sun, September 21, 1897

(My thanks and apologies to Virginia O’Hanlon and F. P. Church)

May Christ be born in us this Christmas!

Civil Government

November 29, 2005

My alma mater, Delta State University, has as its official mascot the Statesman. The Statesman mascot is an Uncle Sam looking individual with a top hat, except the school colors of green and white make him look more like a Notre Dame’s leprechaun. (Just in case the NCAA declares the Statesman politically incorrect, as they did to Florida State’s Seminoles, we have an alternate mascot in waiting: The Fighting Okra. I am not kidding; you can’t make this stuff up.)

It begs the question: Who is a Statesman, anyway? They are rarer than chupacabra sightings. Back in Mississippi, we had a few real statesmen. Gov. William Winter, Lt. Governor Evelyn Gandy and Senator John Stennis left office with their dignity in tack, and with more respect than when they entered office. Non-politician statesmen included college president Dr. Aubrey Lucas and industrialist Owen Cooper, both of whom also provided outstanding lay leadership in their Methodist and Baptist churches, respectively. Apart from that handful, I’m having difficulty coming up with other genuine statesmen.

It’s such a shame that there are so few statesmen, especially in Washington. It saddens me greatly to see the rancor coming from our elected leaders. I doubt they are waiting to hear my suggestions, but I’m going to offer it anyway, ready or not.

First, there is a huge difference between politicians and statesmen. Politicians look at the next election, statesmen look at the next generation.

Secondly, statesmen understand the value of humor. Former Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee said humor is the oil that makes politics work. It is so sad we do not have the likes of Senator Sam Irwin (“I’m just a pool’ country lawyer from North Carolina”), or Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois whose one-liners could make Democrats and Republicans laugh together, and not at each other. What ever happened to the civility that saw Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill ending a contentious day with jokes?

Third, politicians take themselves far too seriously; statesmen can laugh at themselves. I can name a couple politicians who underwear seems to be on a bit too tight. But as Chairman of the California Whig Party, I’ll take the higher road and let you look at their faces and figure out who they are. When was he last time you saw one of them smile; I mean a real genuine smile, not a sneer?

Finally, if you guys don’t quit assassinating each other’s character, and get on with the nation’s business we elected you to do, and cut out that bickering as if you were a bunch of spoiled kindergarten brats, we are going to recall the whole lot of you! (I don’t care if it is a Democrat or a Republican, it’s a long standing tradition that traitors get shot at sunrise.) Don’t make my mother have to come up there and make you kiss and make up like she did to my little brother Louis and me after we fought. But you know what? It worked! I don’t think there is enough Ivory soap in Washington to wash out the mouths of some of you guys.

It’s not too late. Some of you might make statesman yet. But the way you are headed, I don’t see a statesman in the whole bunch. How sad for America.

P. S. Some say politics and religion should not mix. Could it be that is the problem? Politicians don’t seem to have much trouble telling religion what to do. Looks to me like the folks in Washington could use a good dose of religion.

P. P. S. Anita encourages me to stay away from politics in these newsletters. I will be sleeping on the couch tonight (again). She says I should too much like Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes.

God’s Giving, Our Thanks

November 22, 2005

It appears to me that it is God’s nature to give abundant blessing to His children. It also appears that it is not as natural for us to say “Thank you.” So we instituted the National Day of Thanksgiving as a reminder to offer thanks, (however disingenuously), to Almighty God.

The contrast of circumstances is startling. A family in Pearlington, Mississippi, (where I lived for six years) is in their third month “camped out” on the concrete slab of what once was their ancestral home. Still there is no plumbing, no electricity (except for the small generator) no money, no stores to spend the money if they had any. The father lies in a Slidell Hospital near death, having lost the will to live. When he dies, he will not be counted among the casualties of Hurricane Katrina. But he will be another Katrina casualty, nonetheless. Thanksgiving is two days away.

A family in San Diego “camped out” all night. They want to be the first in line when Best Buy opens so they will be assured they will get the new XBOX game computer. In San Diego, we have plenty of electricity, food, plumbing, money and stores in which to spend it. We will have plenty of time to rest and play this long weekend, because Thanksgiving is just two days away.

Thanksgiving has roots all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Even Cain and Abel knew they did not cause their herds and crops to grow. They brought their Thanksgiving offerings to Almighty God. Abel offered a Thanksgiving from among “the firstlings (best) of his flocks” while Cain brought just “some fruits of the soil”. We learn much about offering thanks to God from this story. Abel offered God thanks with his best; Cain offered a casual, insincere thanks. With Thanksgiving just two days away, how will we demonstrate our gratitude?

In 2 Samuel 24:24, King David said unto Araunah, “Nay; but I will surely buy it of thee at a price: neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the LORD my God of that which doth cost me nothing.” Thanksgiving, if done correctly, will cost us something.

I wish for you and your family and your loved ones a genuine Thanksgiving; filled with gratitude for blessings too many to number, abundantly undeserved from Our Father who loves giving good gifts to His children.