Wednesday
Jun082011

Brett Younger's The Lighter Side

Brett Younger is associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.

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Read a compilation of Younger's The Lighter Side columns below

Read Brett's Lighter Side columns every month, along with news, commentaries, features, Bible studies and more, by subscribing to the print or digital editon of Baptists Today.

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1.6 billion served

By Brett Younger

What would you say if the bellhop knocked on your door and asked, “Would you mind sharing your room?” In 1898, John Nicholson was asked to share his room in Boscobel, Wis., with Samuel Hill. Rather than ask, “Why the Sam Hill should I?” Jack and Sam became fast friends and started “The Gideons.”

Since these two strangers met that night, the Gideons have given away more than 1.6 billion Bibles — more than a million copies every five days. One Sunday night each year the churches in which I grew up had a Gideon speaker, as in “He was better than last year’s Gideon.” There is an urban legend that people leave money in Gideon Bibles, but I never found (or left) any. While John and Sam’s venture has been wildly successful, the name still puzzles me.

I write half of the Formations Commentary for Adult Bible Study. Writers are at the mercy of editors. I hope to be asked to write on King David, the Beatitudes or the church in Acts. Right now I am working, slowly, on 8,000 words about Gideon.

Did my editor, John or Sam consider other possibilities? How carefully did they read the story? Gideon is making wine while hiding from the Midianites when an angel shows up.

Gideon complains, “The Midianites need to go back to Midian.”

The angel replies, “Funny you should mention that.”

Gideon whines, “I’m just a little guy.”

In less than two chapters the writer of Judges says that Gideon is afraid seven times. Gideon keeps asking for peculiar signs — wet wool on dry grass, dry wool on wet grass — until he gets forced into some exciting adventures.

He attacks the Midianites with torches and trumpets, which probably did not inspire confidence in his troops, but the torch on the front of Gideon Bibles looks great. Gideon attacks his own people when they refuse to lend a hand. In a scene that makes Gideon seem like Edward G. Robinson leading the revelry at the foot of Mount Sinai in The Ten Commandments, Gideon collects everyone’s gold to make an idol. Gideon turns down the chance to be king, but then names one of his 70 — count ’em, 70 — sons (whose mother was a concubine) “Abimelech,” which means “My father is king.” Maybe he ran out of names.

Which part of Gideon’s story screams, “We need to stamp this guy’s name on the cover of 1.6 billion Bibles”?

This is one of those rare instances when a committee would have been helpful.

“John and Sam, giving away Bibles is a fine idea, but we don’t need to call them all Gideon Bibles. We could have Noah Bibles that are waterproof.”

“Rahab Bibles would include red ribbons.”

“David Bibles belong to someone else, but you take one even though you already have lots of Bibles of your own.”

“Solomon Bibles have been cut in half.”

“Paul Bibles are for travelers.”        

“Lydia Bibles are purple.”

“What about a Thomas Bible for people who aren’t sure they want to read it?”

Were it not for the Gideons, popular culture would be impoverished.

The Beatles sang, “Rocky Raccoon checked in to his room only to find Gideon’s Bible.”

In Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe’s character croons, “I’ll be with my diary and that book by Mr. Gideon.”

In Guys and Dolls, Sky Masterson mentions that the only two things that have been in every hotel room in the country are “Sky Masterson and the Gideon Bible.”

In Mission Impossible, Ethan Hunt figures out the identity of a corrupt agent when he notices that the Gideon Bible in his team’s safe house is from a hotel in a certain city. When this clue is revealed to the agent, he remarks, “They stamped it, didn’t they? Those (expletive deleted) Gideons.”

In what has to be every Gideon’s favorite episode of Cheers, Sam Malone takes a woman to a hotel, then assumes the Gideon Bible in the nightstand is a sign from God that Sam shouldn’t sleep with her — which, of course, it was.

Sam Hill would have laughed.

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Breakfast in Peppertown

By Brett Younger

Don’t tell my mom. She won’t understand. When I was growing up, we did not eat out. I have no childhood memories of restaurants. Diners were as off-limits as pool halls, casinos and Methodist churches. Eating out was morally dubious.

My mother’s questions were unanswerable: “Why do you want to waste our money? Is there something wrong with my cooking? Do you think Jesus went out to eat when Mary had supper on the table?”

You might think “We love your cooking, just like Jesus would, and want to show our gratitude by giving you a break” would be a reasonable argument. You would be wrong.

When we went on vacation, mom packed bologna sandwiches, so I got used to driving past Dairy Queens, but there was one eatery that I continued to look at with unrequited longing.

Peppertown Restaurant is at the intersection of County Road 383 and County Road 178, five miles and six Baptist churches from my parents’ house. Every time we drove past I imagined the haute cuisine they must be serving. I pictured my favorite foods prepared with astonishing flair. The chef would grace the table with surprisingly inventive bologna sandwiches. I could hear welcoming voices: “Brett, we haven’t seen you in here before, but we knew you would make it eventually.” Peppertown Restaurant was my vision of the heavenly banquet.

I told my mother we would not be getting to the house until 2:30, so she shouldn’t wait on us for lunch — especially since lunch is now at 10:30. At 2:00 when we drove past the PR I surreptitiously decided it would be the last time I passed the extravagant café without having tasted the forbidden fruit. At 2:15, lunch was waiting on my mom’s table. She served pot roast, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, yeast rolls and two kinds of pie — pecan and lemon ice box.

I gained five pounds, but we had a nice visit. I read the Tupelo Daily Journal each morning, played touch football and worked on a 1,000-piece puzzle (it was a snow scene with white clouds, so we felt okay getting only about 400 together). We successfully avoided subjects that have given us trouble in the past — the current president, the last president, public schools, women ministers, gay people, Jonah’s completely literal whale, Japanese cars, movies not starring John Wayne, and the Dallas Cowboys.

On the night before we were to leave, I told my mom that we wouldn’t be able to stay for breakfast. I chose not to reveal my rebellious plan. The next morning, after almost 50 years of passing by, I stopped. Ours was the only car that was not a truck. We almost parked in front of a “The Last Car That Parked Here is Still Missing” notice. My heart was pounding as I opened the door. At the counter we briefly considered “Push here for service,” but the button is set on a mousetrap. Everyone was friendly, “Just grab a table. There’s a nice one in the back next to the heater.” It was the friendliness that ushers offer people who clearly have not been to church before.

There is a fine line between antiques and old junk. The Peppertown Restaurant is filled with signs that could go either way: Hostess Creme-filled Twinkies 10¢, Buy Pepsi-Cola Today 5¢, Hot Dogs 15¢, and “Chewing allowed, Spitting ain’t.” I so wished the photograph of Elvis, who was born about 10 miles from there, had been taken at the PR, but it wasn’t.

We were in one of the few remaining places where Mississippians assume that everyone not from Mississippi has an accent. I was a little thrown by the girl wearing the “I ♥ NY” T-shirt that would have been frowned upon not many years ago. She was trying to explain Facebook to her grandfather. “Preacher man,” in an orange cap and camouflage, held court near the front. A couple prayed quietly over their breakfast.

If it had been lunchtime, I would have ordered the sweet tater fries. The butter biscuit sounded good and the chocolate biscuits tempting. I almost ordered the bologna biscuit — which I had long dreamed would be there — but at the last minute I switched to fried eggs and toast. The coffee came in only one flavor, but I had both grape and strawberry jelly. The eggs were just the right level of crispy. Breakfast tasted like the extravagance my upbringing taught me to fear. Maybe it is time I visit a Methodist church.

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In with the old, in with the new

By Brett Younger

Why isn’t this month’s namesake featured on more church newsletters and websites? Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, endings and time, has two heads that face opposite directions. One head looks back at the last year while the other looks forward to the new, simultaneously looking into the future and the past. Janus would be a fine symbol for congregations that cannot decide which direction they should be facing. The absolute necessity of both old and new is obvious, and yet old and new have a longstanding, ongoing battle in the church.

We have been to churches that hope tomorrow will be 1958 and churches that stay away from anything older than they are; churches that still give 10 points for reading the Bible every day and 20 for being on time and churches that discuss the theological implications of the films of Will Ferrell; churches that got their Hammond organ when the funeral home closed and churches that got their drums when the pastor’s rock band broke up; churches that smell of incense and churches that smell like the gymnasiums they are six days of the week; churches with paintings of rivers in the baptistery and churches where the baptistery is a river; churches where they hug and say, “God loves you and I do, too” and churches where no one has hugged in years; churches with kneeling, reciting, and genuflecting and churches with clapping, waving, and dancing; churches that are emerging and churches that are submerging; churches that love whatever is covered with dust and churches enamored with whatever came in the mail this morning.

The churches in which I grew up loved the old. Things seldom changed. One churchgoer put it this way: “This is what I learned at First Baptist Church. I learned that unleavened bread is Chicklet-sized soda crackers. I learned that the Hebrew word for grape juice is spelled w-i-n-e. I learned that the moneychangers at the temple were communists, not capitalists. I learned that every passage of scripture has three points. I learned that Sunday school teachers have an unlimited supply of construction paper, Elmer’s glue and Popsicle sticks.”

We were serious about the ancient words. We had dog-eared Bibles with multi-colored underlining and sermon notes scribbled in the margin. We taped memory verses to our mirrors, refrigerators and baby beds. We took sin seriously. The church warned us about the dangers of worldliness and the hypnotic glitter of having, doin, and thinking what the sinful crowd has, does and thinks.

There are so many good things about churches that love the old that it takes a while to realize that some crucial things are missing. God calls us in new, surprising ways. Churches in love with the old miss the gospel that’s always new.

There is also danger in the opposite direction. Some churches accept only what’s new and push aside everything that’s old. We’ve been to churches that love the new. They can be a lot of fun. It’s fun to sing without a hymnal when the words are on a big, big screen, to sing what has been called 7-11 music — 7 words repeated 11 times. It’s fun to hear easily understood, often alliterative sermons with titles like, “How to Be Happy,” “How to Have a Happy Marriage,” “How to Have Happy Children” and “How to Have Happy Children Who will Have Happy Marriages.” It’s fun to watch clips from Avatar that supposedly illuminate the story of David and Goliath. It’s fun to have Pepsi and potato chips for the Lord’s Supper. It’s fun to go to church and be surprised by what’s new.

Churches that love only the new can be so much fun, so genuinely joyful, that it takes a while to realize something is missing. God calls us to walk ancient paths. Churches in love with the new miss the old gospel.

Jesus’ advice is to love the best of the old and the new: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of the treasury what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). We know it is not either/or, but both/and. We read the new by an old light. We see the old in a light that is new each day. Janus had the right idea. We need to look both ways.

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The most interesting minister in the world

By Brett Younger

Most Baptists claim they do not care for the product, but when we are alone we smile at the commercials featuring “the most interesting man in the world.” The advertisements depict a bearded, debonair gentleman in his 50s. While vaguely Spanish music plays in the background, the narrator describes “the most interesting man in the world.”

  • If he punched you in the face, you would have to fight off the strong urge to thank him.
  • He once taught a German shepherd to bark in Spanish.
  • His personality is so magnetic, he is unable to carry credit cards.
  • He has been known to cure narcolepsy just by walking into a room.
  • His organ donor card also lists his beard.
  • He is “the most interesting man in the world.”

Each commercial ends with a signature sign-off: “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

I am guessing that you and I have exactly the same reaction — someone needs to make commercials about “the most interesting minister in the world.”

When the most interesting minister leads a silent prayer, birds stop singing.

When the most interesting minister prays before the offering is collected, the plates fill with credit cards, earrings and gold watches.

Other ministers have to lead the prayer of confession, because the most interesting minister has nothing to say.

During hymns, the congregation wishes the most interesting minister’s lapel mic was on.

When the most interesting minister reads scripture, most assume she wrote it.

When the most interesting minister has a baby dedication, the baby always cries — when he hands the baby back to the mother.

When the most interesting minister leads the children’s sermon, everyone comes to the front.

When the most interesting minister steps into the baptistery, the water parts.

When the most interesting minister serves communion, it does not taste like grape juice.

When the most interesting minister preaches, cell phones refuse to ring.

The most interesting minister speaks fluent Hebrew and Greek, but never does so in the pulpit.

Nine months after the most interesting minister’s sermon on Song of Solomon, the nursery ran out of space.

When the most interesting minister preached on the Book of Revelation it made sense.

The most interesting minister preached on the war in Afghanistan, abortion and gay marriage. Everyone agreed with everything she said.

The most interesting minister quotes “The Lighter Side.”

The most interesting minister never preaches long enough.

Ministers from other churches join the most interesting minister’s church just to shake his hand.

After Sunday services, the most interesting minister autographs orders of worship — which have been known to show up on e-Bay.

When the organ is broken, the most interesting minister fixes it — without tools.

When the most interesting minister speaks at deacons’ meetings, deacons repent.

The most interesting minister does not go to committee meetings; they come to him.

The youth have a Sunday for the most interesting minister.

When the most interesting minister served at the Wednesday night supper, the kitchen got a five-star rating in the next day’s newspaper.

When the most interesting minister led a Bible study on Genesis 3, apple sales plummeted.

When the most interesting minister performs a wedding ceremony, no one looks at the bride.

When the most interesting minister preaches at a funeral, people cry because the deceased did not get to hear it.

The most interesting minister performs the Christmas pageant as a one-person play.

When the most interesting minister built a house for Habitat for Humanity, it was immediately renamed Habitat for Divinity.

Billy Graham comes to the most interesting minister’s crusades.

Joel Osteen copied the most interesting minister’s smile.

The most interesting minister knows your name, your birthday and the year of your birth — which she never mentions.

The most interesting minister has been to Israel many times, and each time, peace breaks out.

I don’t always go to church, but when I do I prefer my minister. Stay interesting, ministers.