To call this simply a book of sermons does not do it justice. They are sermons?preached over a thirty-five-year period?to differing congregations, but they are also lessons on life and living. Biblically based to be sure, but the scriptures are filtered through a mind steeped in the classics, open to what?s going on in the world, and not afraid to raise questions that challenge the very faith that is being preached. Although Rev. Starnes is known for his preaching skills, he is primarily a writer, who, as someone says, ?knows how to string words together.? A note worthy comment made when considering his book is what one said: ?He writes for the ear.?
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No One Knows When It's a Good Day
And a few other things I have said on Sunday Mornings
By Thomas Starnes
AuthorHouse LLCCopyright © 2014 Thomas Starnes
All rights reserved.
No One Knows When it's a Good Day
Exactly when the smiley yellow faces began popping up ordering me to have a nice day I am not at all sure. It occurs to me, though, that it was in the early seventies when people – all kinds of people: store clerks, bank tellers, friends even – joined forces with the smiley yellow faces telling me to "have a nice day," or its counterpart, "have a good day." Some even began issuing their own revised version: "Have a good one."
At first, they were a pleasant few words to hear; something rather nice about being told to have a good day. Familiarity may, in some instances, breed contempt. It may also spawn suspicion, as it did for me, after being told repeatedly on multiple days to "have a good one," I began to question the sincerity of the comment.
One morning when the woman behind the counter handed me my change and issued her command to me about the quality of day I should have, my mind did not head to an examination of her motives: did she really mean what she said, or was this simply a replacement for "so long" or "see you" on her list of expressions used to send you on your way. Truth is, my thoughts were not about her at all, they were about the command she had just given me: "Have a good day."
For starters I wondered whether the choice was up to me – the choice about the nature of my day. Could I choose to have a good day? Was it really that simple? Could I get up each morning and command my day to be good? Am I in charge of quality control when it comes to fashioning my days, I asked myself? And it occurred to me that maybe – just maybe – I wasn't seated at the switch in command central pushing the buttons that might make my day a good one.
Simply because a lot of life is handed to us, isn't it – like that beautifully warm day at the beach early one August. Our family and my wife's brother's family had taken over my sister's beach house for a week of splashing in the ocean, building sand castles and fishing. Wave's brother loved to fish.
Which is what he and I and our two oldest sons were doing when a coast guard officer pulled up alongside our rented boat with a message that we should come ashore immediately, where we were told that my wife's father's heart had, quite unexpectedly, given out, standing our planned for good day on its head.
Chance occurrences, interruptions, sudden changes, are some of life's givens. Samuel Taylor Coleridge never completed his poem, Kubla Khan. In a drug induced sleep one afternoon, his mind was bombarded with images and expressions that would have required two to three hundred lines of verse – lines that he remembered when he awoke and began to write. Then came a knock at the door – an interruption by a "person on business from Porlock"— and Coleridge was never able to capture more than some eight or ten scattered lines and images.
"Stuff happens" has become conventional wisdom, and some potentially good days have become actually bad days. No one planned it that way. It just happened. If the people involved could have commanded their day to be good, they most certainly would have done that. And maybe they did, but their man from Porlock came knocking and altered the course of that day.
It is this capriciousness factor of life that seems to be missing in many of the "take charge of your life" books, making William Dyer's "Pulling Your Own Strings" seem just as superficial as William Henley's "I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul." We can do worse than having a therapist – maybe even a life coach – on retainer to assist us in making the most of the three score and ten – more or less – that we have been given.
But I have sat with too many people whose days were being clouded over by circumstances out of their control. If only they could command the clouds to roll away – the ones that were blocking the sun on this particular day – how swiftly they would move to do that, but they couldn't. Those clouds had minds of their own.
So, the next time someone says to me, "Have a good day," perhaps I will ask them for suggestions as to how I might bring that off.
Another thought I had after the woman told me to have a good day was this: if I could order up a good day what would it be like? Would there be no sadness on my good day – no pain or discomfort of any kind? Yogi Berra was asked what he liked about school, and he answered, "Recess." If we could tailor make our days, would we choose to leave out all the bad and all the stressors?
Let's say we could go about fashioning ourselves a good day, and after determining that there would be no unpleasantness in any good day of ours, how do we know if something is really good or really bad? "No one knows when it's a good day" says the Hindu proverb. Is that true?
There is a Biblical basis for at least giving it a second thought. Most of us know the story of Joseph, Jacob's favored son. His older brothers sell him into slavery; bring his animal blood soaked "cloak of many colors" back to their father, convincing him that this preferred child of his is dead. Joseph, however, living in Pharaoh's house, rises in the chain of command and, in a position of power, is able to take care of his family through some pretty lean years. Eventually, Joseph makes himself known to his brothers, Jacob dies, and the brothers fret that since the father is not around anymore it will be payback time for Joseph: he will exact his revenge.
So the brothers concoct a story about a death bed plea by their father that Joseph will forgive his brothers, and Joseph listens to their trumped up account, and then says:
"Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you meant it for evil, God meant it for good."
How do you know what it is that's good about a day, or, for that matter, what is bad? Lin Yutang tells a story about an old man who lived with his son in an abandoned fort. One night the old man's only horse wanders off, and when his neighbors gather to comfort him in his time of ill fortune, the old man says, "How do you know this is ill fortune?" A week later, the horse returns bringing with him a herd of wild horses, and the neighbors come calling to celebrate this bit of good fortune, only to have the old man repeat his question, changing just one word, "How do you know this is good fortune?" Days later the old man's son is thrown from one of the horses, suffering a broken leg and the neighbors come calling to celebrate this bit of ill fortune. The old man asks his question again, changing the one word. In less than a week a military draft is ordered and the old man's son, because of the broken leg, does not go marching off to war, and when the neighbors call to give thanks for this good fortune, the old man again sends them home with his question challenging their assessment of the situation.
There is truth to the Hindu proverb, isn't there? Haven't some of our supposed bad days turned out to be good days? That awful day almost a half century ago, when severe anxiety put me in such a state of panic that I feared for my sanity, seemed anything but good. It was the day, however, that forced me to find a therapist and begin to peel away phobic layers that I had used for years to keep a lid on my fears.
This notion that we can't really know whether a day is good or bad is not just Hindu wisdom. It's rooted in my faith tradition. Throughout those early days of wilderness wanderings, on any given day they wondered as they wandered. And as the bad days piled up – far outnumbering, in their minds, at least, the good days – it occurred to them that God had sent them on some sort of snipe hunt. It was only as they looked back on some of those long, hard, slogs, that they detected the hand of God and began to look upon some of those worst of times as the best of times.
So to all of you who hope I "have a good one," please know that although I appreciate your well wishes, let me suggest that the next time you send me on my way, try saying something like this:
Tom, I hope this day proves good for you; that whatever happens – whatever you experience – will be used by God to serve some useful purpose in your life, and further, that because of this day – with whatever it brings – your life will be richer and fuller, and you will have grown.
Since most of us don't have time to say all that in passing, and no doubt that, too, would get stale from overexposure, just say to me, "May God go with you." Living every day with a consciousness of God's presence has to be a good day, regardless.CHAPTER 2
One of God's Favorite Words
When preaching from the lectionary dribbled its way into the lives of some of us more liturgically minded Methodists – those of us who wanted to lay claim to our Anglican Church roots – it took some of the angst out of my sermon preparation. Gone were those Monday morning sweats that accompanied either my looking for a topic or a scripture verse to make the case for the topic I had already selected. Having three lessons and a psalm served up each week at least narrowed the focus.
It did not, however, take away all the pain of sermon writing. Especially on those weeks when I could not, for the life of me, see why the lectionary compilers strung that collection of verses together. Even though I knew – having been told by seasoned lectionary preachers – that there would not always be a unifying thread weaving its way through the lessons, my puzzle loving mind just couldn't let that bit of homiletical conventional wisdom stand. All it took, I told myself, to find the linchpin that might give these verses a common bond, would be some prayerful pondering.
More pondering than praying – which is, sorry to say, my style – is what I was doing that week some thirty years ago as I thumbed back and forth through Scripture's pages. The Hebrew lesson was a snippet out of Moses' life when his and God's patience was being stretched to the limits. The supposed "chosen ones" had moved on from just grumbling about how long it was taking to get to that "promised land," to outright rebellion: they fashioned a god of their own.
The story has it that God was incensed. Grousing is one thing, God told Moses, but idolatry is another, and God would have none of it. Had Moses forgotten that that was the first of the big ten? Moses, according to the writer of Exodus, acting like the loving father he presumed God to be, begged God to forgive the children of Israel – give them another chance – and God did just that.
The gospel lesson was from that chapter in Luke where Jesus uses three stories to answer the charge that he not only welcomes unsavory characters, but eats with them as well. We have given the stories names: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Prodigal Son.
Paul wrote the epistle lesson for that long ago week, although there is some question that he did, in fact, write those letters to Timothy. But let's leave proof of authorship to the Biblical scholars, and just listen to these few lines:
"I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus"
And it was this line from that lesson, "but I received mercy and the grace of our Lord," that gave me my linchpin: grace.
"God's unmerited favor toward us" is the grace definition my seminary professor gave me, and
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt,
Yonder on Calvary's Mount out-poured.
There where the blood of the lamb was spilt.
Grace, grace, God's grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within,
Grace, grace, God's grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.
is the singing definition I learned in my growing up years. So, I decided to preach a sermon on grace.
Strange as it may seem, given the popularity of the word in church circles and "Amazing Grace" having become an international hymn, I had never preached a sermon on the subject. Plenty of times in plenty of sermons I had used the word, but at no time had I ever written a whole sermon on grace.
And that wasn't all: I could not find a single sermon on grace in any of the sermon books in my library. Having long felt that preachers ought to read the pulpit masters, I had, over the years, gathered up new and used collections of the likes of Fosdick, Buttrick, Read, Kennedy, Armstrong, and Hamilton; nowhere, in any of them, could I find a complete sermon on grace.
So I began to scribble some notes as to why this might be so, if, indeed it was so, or simply an indication of the limitations of my library. Just suppose, though, that my limited research is on to something – not many whole sermons on grace – doesn't that seem strange? In a time when so many struggle with guilt?
"It's not the feeling of anything I've ever done, which I might get away from, or of anything in me I could get rid of – but of emptiness, of failure, towards someone or something, outside of myself; and I feel I must ... atone – is that the word?"
I scribbled those lines from T. S. Eliot's, "The Cocktail Party" on my note gathering sheets, as well as a reference to poor Joseph K in Kafka's, The Trial. The poor man stood accused – the charges against him never read – and I jotted him down as possible sermon material – an archetype of our guilted age.
While I was making some other notes – notes about the prevalence of guilt, and Eliot's references to "emptiness" and "failure," trying to get my head around this supposed absence of sermons on grace just when it appears we need the love and acceptance the word implies – the germ of an idea settled in.
It's been so long ago I can't remember which came first, the quote or the idea. Thirty years later, does it really matter? Knowing how my mind works – quotes, poetry lines, stories just seem to pop up – I'll let the quote take precedence. When a ballerina was asked to explain her dance, she replied: "If I could have said it, I wouldn't have needed to have danced it." The idea was not long coming: perhaps grace is too big a word to put into words. The church has known this from the beginning, fashioning symbols and sacraments to express some of its most treasured articles of faith. Oh, we have our wordy creeds, but when we want to really get serious, we pour some water on a head or break a loaf of bread and raise a chalice. Some things are too big for words.
Do you suppose that grace is one of those words that can't be put into words; that it's too big for that; that it needs something else – its own sacrament-like method of expression? That was the conclusion I drew then, and the sacrament-like method of expression I suggested was the story.
Isn't that what Jesus did, I said when I finally took my place in the pulpit that next Sunday? Weren't stories his way of saying something that really couldn't be said? Like the story in Luke 15 that we have miss-titled, "The Prodigal Son." If Jesus were titling it, I said, chances are he would have called it something like "The Loving Father" or, maybe even, "The Grace-full Father." Looking at Rembrandt's, The Return of the Prodigal Son, it's the fathers loving hands on the shoulders of the wayward son kneeling before him that draw your attention. This well worn story, I suggested, was one of Jesus' grace stories, and, to my mind at least, his favorite.
I told them another grace story that morning. The late Bishop Gerald Kennedy included it in his Lyman Beecher Lectures on preaching at Yale University. Like a lot of other boys he had a paper route; one that required a 3:30 am wake-up call. One blistery, cold, rainy morning he got up, rode his bicycle down to the press room, folded his papers, stuffed them in his delivery bag, and went back outside, wet and shivering. When he got out to the street, there, parked at the curb, was the family Ford. His father got out, helped him put the bicycle in the trunk, and off they rode. This is how Bishop Kennedy put it:
* * *
"I can remember my feelings as if this had happened yesterday. My father had to go to work each morning and I had no legitimate claim whatsoever upon him for his kindness. I think I came closer to him that morning and I had a more profound understanding of what fatherhood meant than at any other time in my life."
Excerpted from No One Knows When It's a Good Day by Thomas Starnes. Copyright © 2014 Thomas Starnes. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse LLC.
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Table of Contents
1. No One Knows When it's a Good Day, 1,
2. One of God's Favorite Words, 6,
3. Teach Us To Pray, 12,
4. Stopping Short, 18,
5. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, 22,
6. The Courage of One's Doubts, 27,
7. The Nativity's Naiveté, 31,
8. A Very Present Help, 37,
9. Riding Out the Storm, 41,
10. Slender Threads, 45,
11. Living between the Times, 51,
12. Believing Without Seeing, 56,
13. God's Foolishness is Our Wisdom, 62,
14. Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, 67,
15. Handling Life's Second Bests, 72,
16. Made for More than This, 77,
17. The Faith of Job, 81,
18. All I Have Needed, 86,
19. Faith Alters Appearances, 91,
20. God's Neighborliness, 97,
21. Is the Lord Among Us, 102,
22. The Hound of Heaven, 107,
23. Life's Ups and Downs, 111,
24. Soul Struggles, 116,
25. What a Heaven's For, 120,
26. Is it True, 126,