14 December 2012

No Words, only God's Word at a Time like This

This morning a gunman entered an elementary school in Newtown, CT and opened fired.  Initial reports have the dead at 26 of which 20 are reportedly children.  I have no words for this, only raw emotion - a combination of heartsick grief and boiling anger.  I can only imaging what those at the scene are experiencing.  Only in my most cruel nightmare can I imaging the hearts of parents who have dead children today.  I have no words of comfort or explanation, only tears.

Days like today, and there have been too many of them in my lifetime, cause me groan with deliverance from this world.  Days like today make me feel utterly inadequate as a pastor who is supposed to comfort the hurting.  I don't know what to say to people who experience such tragedy or those who question me about such horrors. I have no words.  The best I know to do is let God speak for Himself.

  • "The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit." Psalm 34:18

  • Jesus said,  "In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world." John 16:33

  • "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately wicked; who can understand it?" Jeremiah 17:9

  • Jesus said, "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness..." Mark 7:21-22

  • "For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven."  2 Corinthians 5:1-2

  • "And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain..." Revelation 21:4

  • "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  Romans 8:38-39

This is the Word of God.  I cling to it and with it God holds on tight to me and all those who belong to Him.

I would love for you to leave more of God's Word in the comments. 

Remembering the families of Sandy Hook Elementary School in my prayers.

28 November 2012

Lexington's Fairness Ordinance: It's About so much More than the Law

I believe that laws reflect the values of a culture.  What a society deems as appropriate ultimately becomes codified in laws that put certain parameters on people's behavior.  Laws reflect a value system, but laws are not morals.  Laws give expression to morals.

Once again, the moral question of homosexuality has come to my attention in the headlines of yesterday's The Lexington Herald-Leader.  Some time ago a T-shirt printing company in Lexington, Ky, Hands On Originals, refused service to the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization.  The company's managing owner Blaine Adamson, chose to refuse service after learning the order was for promoting the 5th annual gay pride festival.  According to the company's attorneys, Adamson rejected the order because he did not want to support the message, "that people should be 'proud' about engaging in homosexual behavior or same-sex relationships."

However, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission has decreed that Hands On Originals had engaged in discrimination and violated the city's Fairness Ordinance (1999) that stipulates that homosexuals are a protected class of people.  It's possible now that the discussion may proceed to a public hearing between the groups.  What a circus that will be if that happens!

I drove to Louisville yesterday, listening to the Lexington talk radio blowing up with debate concerning this case.  I heard people calling in to defend the rights of the store owner to have his own personal convictions about homosexuality; therefore, having the right to refuse service if he wanted.  I heard others insist that the "law is the law" and that he had clearly violated the Fairness Ordinance of the city.  Back and forth it went all morning. 

So, here we are again at the intersection of a Christian's conscience guided by the Bible and law.  It is clear that Hands On Originals violated the Fairness Ordinance.  If we go by the letter of that law, that conclusion is inescapable to me. (But I'm sure that the lawyers will split hairs that I can't even see)  But, there is a much bigger issue here than just the letter of the law.

In regards to homosexuality, the Lexington ordinance is an example of the shifting values of a culture and may be exemplary of the legal future of our country as a whole.  By making homosexuals a protected class, Lexington's law makers have given a moral thumbs up to homosexual behavior.  Again, behind every law is a value that creates it.  And behind that moral value is a source of authority for the value that creates the law.  If homosexual behavior is morally acceptable, then it is perfectly proper to create laws to protect homosexuals from discrimination.  If homosexuality is wrong, then it seems just as appropriate to create laws to discourage the behavior.  This has actually been the case in the past.  Many of such laws against homosexual behavior were labeled as "crimes against nature."  Most have been repealed since the 1960s, but some are still on the books.  Of course, nowhere are such laws actively enforced.  Few people stop to ask how those who went before us could have ever created such laws - laws against sexual activity.  And the laws were not restricted to homosexuality, but adultery as well.  It begs the question of what source of authority were such laws founded on.  The obvious answer is the Bible. 

Today, the Bible, which has in the past been a primary moral source of authority for giving shape to our laws, has been pushed to the side as antiquated, no longer having the influence it once exerted on the public.  Today, sexual behavior has been categorized as a purely personal choice and has become essentially an amoral topic for many.  Sexual behavior is an area that is no longer under the scrutiny of God's Word.  Sexual behavior is now under the category of "live and let live," a private choice. 

So here is the tension.  What are Bible-believing, Christian business owners to do?  Laws are increasingly forcing them to give consent to behavior that they believe God has clearly said is wrong.  For Bible-believing Christians homosexual behavior is not just wrong for them, it's wrong for anyone.  This is a position that is becoming increasingly unpopular and one that our laws are going find ways to punish.

The choice may eventually boil down for some between capitulation to the law or breaking the law through civil disobedience.  Again, laws are not the same thing as morals.  And sometimes in history laws have not been moral.  And when this happens people of conviction have defied those laws and endured whatever punishment the governing authorities has levied against them.  Many, many examples of this exist.  Christians who defied Roman Emperors, Protestants who defied Roman Catholic authorities of church and state, Anabaptists who defied local laws for conscience sake, Germans who broke anti-Semitic laws in Nazi Germany, and African-American civil rights activists who broke segregation laws are just a few examples of when allegiance to a higher authority motivated many to break man's laws.

I believe that we are witnessing in my lifetime a moral shift of enormous scope and significant consequences.  I see a country unfettering itself from its biblically informed law system in regards to sexual behavior, and replacing it with laws that essentially punish those who want to adhere to the old understandings.  My concern is that God will give this country over to it's own "degrading passions" as described in Romans 1.  When God's abandoning wrath comes against a people, then their ruin is certain.  Only genuine repentance will lead a people back to a place in which they honor God and worship Him rather than themselves and their idols.

Christians, get ready to stand now.  Know what you're standing on.  Don't be moved no matter what the cost.  And by the way, right now churches are exempt from such fairness laws.  But don't count on that remaining the norm. 




26 November 2012

Dad Had the Answer to the Fiscal Cliff

We can all remember dad saying to us the classic parental rhetorical question: "If you're friend jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?"  This statement was typically the response to some kind of juvenile foolish thinking and decision making. And the obvious, common sense answer was a contrite, "of course not dad."  Why would I follow a fool off a cliff to my own demise?  If I did so, then I'm the fool!  That was the essential lesson that our parents attempted to instill in us with the image of the cliff.

If you haven't heard of the "fiscal cliff" that our elected legislators and president are currently speeding toward, then you've been living under a rock.  As soon as the presidential election was over, the fiscal cliff became the buzz phrase all over Washington and in the media.  Essentially, come January 1, according to the current law, dramatic spending cuts will go into effect in the federal budget and Bush-era tax cuts will expire.  Most politicians and pundits alike seem to think this will certainly place greater burden on an already sluggish and sputtering economy.

Everyone seems to agree that jumping off the cliff is idiotic.  However, it seems that we get to watch our partisan politicians play a game of chicken, seeing who will flinch first, while the consequences of their actions will impact those whom they are supposed to be representing and for whom they are working.  It's the endless, predictable, pathetic drama of Washington that the ordinary, hard-working American gets put out with.  Most folks want to see our elected officials work together for the common good, make reasonable sacrifices if necessary, and put service of country before self. 

God's Word describes why government exists.  In Romans 13:4 government is described ideally as "a minister of God to you for good."  People should understand that God has established government as a means by which evil is restrained and punished, and law-abiding citizens are protected.  As a believer I am captive to the Bible's teaching that I should honor and pray for those who God is allowing to govern me and my family.  However, I also have a biblically-informed expectation that my government should be making decisions that have my best interest at heart.  These decisions may not always be easy ones, but at the end of the day they should be the morally responsible ones. 

This so-called fiscal cliff is just the latest example of politics overrunning real service among our elected representatives.  Each side will try to leverage public fear to their advantage and play the blame game instead of just doing their duty to the people and consequently honoring God in the performance of that duty. 

I hope that you will join me in praying for our legislators and president in the coming weeks.  Our duty as the church is to pray for these men and women who shoulder this enormous responsibility.  Let's pray that they will exercise wisdom and cooperation.  Let's pray that conviction will fall on them that their own careerism will take a backseat to their mission.  Let's pray that they will put petty partisan behavior aside and work for a common good.  Let's pray that they will make sound decisions for the long-term good and not for what is just politically expedient in the moment.  And let's pray that they don't allow their desire to be re-elected to their positions to deter them from doing what is right for the people. 

I sure hope that some of their dads or moms are calling them and saying, "Son, if your fellow Senator jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?" 

20 November 2012

Hobby Lobby & Obamacare

Yesterday a federal judge ruled that Hobby Lobby could not be exempt from the birth control mandate of the Affordable Health Care Law (a.k.a Obamacare).  After an initial flurry of dissent from religious organizations, mainly Catholic, we saw the federal government quickly back peddle and declare that churches and religious organizations would be granted exemptions from the birth-control provisions of the new health care law.  However, Hobby Lobby is not recognized by the government or the courts as a religious organization.  It is a for profit business, obviously. 

In September Hobby Lobby sued the federal government over the birth control portion of the health care mandate.  David Green, CEO, contended that the provisions that force a company to provide certain kinds of birth control, such as the morning-after and week-after pills, violates his religious beliefs.  In other words, Mr. Green believes the federal government shouldn't force him to pay for a practice that he considers immoral.  Obviously, he believes that life begins at conception and that these early forms of induced abortion (mislabeled as birth control) are morally wrong. 

The reason his request was denied by the federal judge was because there is no precedent of a business like Hobby Lobby having a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.  I read one article that quoted a lawyer admitting that this area of legal argument was "uncharted waters."  And indeed it is! 

As the federal government becomes more intrusive (whether you see that as good or bad), these kind of conflicts over moral issues are going to continue to surface as genuinely motivated Christians push back against encroaching moral coercion, whether within a recognized "religious" or "secular" context.  No doubt the two issues that will become flash points in the years ahead are abortion and homosexuality.  The vast majority of Christians who attempt to live biblical lives, not merely "spiritual" lives, consider abortion and homosexual behavior wrong- plain and simple.  However, our prevailing culture is attempting to shame those who hold to such values.  If you are against abortion, then you are participating in a "war on women."  If you dare assert that homosexual behavior is wrong, then you are castigated as an immoral bigot and intolerant and against civil rights for the LGBT community. 

Businesses like Chick-fil-a and Hobby Lobby have already now surfaced as recent examples of the clash between our culture and Christianity.  I think this is a trend that is going to continue.  And it is not inconceivable that the day is coming when our lawmakers and our court systems will begin to impose the social consensus on such issues on religious organizations too. 

David Green has stated that he will appeal the federal judge's decision.  If appeal is denied, then Green has three options.  He could choose civil disobedience and not comply with the mandate, in which Hobby Lobby would incur financial penalties imposed by the federal government.  He could choose to close his successful business in order to avoid violating his conscience, consequently laying off all his employees.  Or he can bow to the wishes of the government in spite of his moral objection based on his Christian convictions.  None of these options are good, and all are  being forced on him by our federal government.  Thomas Jefferson is rolling over in his grave even now!

Green stated, "we seek to honor God by operating the company in a manner consisted with biblical principles."  Apparently, this is getting harder to do in America, and it's going to get worse.  I hope the church and American Christians, committed to biblical standards, are ready.  The easy path will be to bow and blend.  The difficult path will be to endure the shame and let our light shine. 

06 November 2012

What My Church Can Learn from Chick-fil-a

Today, on my way to Dayton, Ohio from Hazard I was blessed to drive through a Chick-fil-a in Georgetown, Ky on route. A really good fast food chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-a is now a treat for me when I'm out of town.  I enjoyed the sandwich, once I took the pickles off. Don't care much for pickles.  But as I got back on I-75 North, eating, driving, and listening to election day coverage on the radio, I began thinking about the consistent experience I have at Chick-fil-a without fail no matter which store I visit.

I can't remember a single instance in which I didn't leave a Chick-fil-a without a gratifying experience.  From the food, to the service, to the feel, it's always good.  Always!  I don't believe I could say that about any other business that I've frequented enough to notice. 

As a pastor, this got me to thinking about what my church could learn from such a well functioning organization.  I though of three things that stood out to me.  Here is what my church could learn from Chick-fil-a:

1. Be committed to serving

Without exception, when I go into a Chick-fil-a or even through the drive through, I'm treated with more politeness, courtesy and thoughtfulness than anywhere else I've been that day.  The place oozes with kindness.  It's actually really weird in a good way.  I could almost understand this in a single store where a local manager works hard and picking out good employees and just dares them to treat a customer badly.  However, I've been in Chick-fil-a's in multiple states and they all make you feel like you've walked into an etiquette show room.  The organization has created a culture of service and from my point of view it's not a feigned politeness.  Every time I hear the words "my pleasure" I feel like it's a sincere statement.  Even though they are taking my money in exchange for the sandwich, they always make me feel appreciated and not taken for granted.  They communicate to me that I am the reason they are doing what they're doing.  They convince me through kindness and courtesy that they really do want me to enjoy my sandwich and have a great day.  I think there is something here my church could learn.

2. Be focused on executing service with excellence

If just being nice wasn't enough, every Chick-fil-a establishment that I've been in is a clean and orderly environment, efficient, and delivers a consistently good product.  Employees are never standing around while a table or floor is dirty or customers are waiting.  The service they provide is obviously the product of some great training, which reflects a real commitment to excellence.  You just don't get that high level of consistent quality by luck or wishful thinking or good intentions.  I think there is something here my church could learn.

3. Be unafraid to put conviction above the bottom line

I used to live in the South where you didn't have to drive far to find a Chick-fil-a.  More than once I drove the family to eat lunch after church on a Sunday afternoon to our favorite chicken sandwich place only to be reminded that they weren't open.  After experiencing that moment of devastation, I reminded myself that this was one of the reasons I like to support their business.

Being closed on Sundays is surely an oddity to most Americans.  However, for Chick-fil-a it is a matter of conviction.  They want their employees to be free to worship and have a day of rest.  Could they increase the bottom line if they were open on Sunday?  Absolutely!  I and many others would gladly help them!  But obviously this organization is about more than the bottom line.  Of course, they are in business to make money, but making as much money as possible doesn't seem to be the goal. 

This year Chick-fil-a suddenly found themselves caught up in a sensational controversy about homosexuality.  President Dan Cathy made a statement in an interview that he supported the promotion of "biblical families."  The context of his statement was actually about divorce in our country not homosexuality.  However, those within the reactive gay community went crazy!  You would have thought Cathy had walked up to a gay guy and punched him.  However, Cathy and the organization stood by his comments.  They were also criticized that the organizations they made charitable contributions to were not gay friendly as well.  Again, Chick-fil-a stood by it's convictions and did not succumb to the pressure.  In an amazing outpouring of support, Chick-fil-a patrons turned out in record numbers to support the franchise.  I'm not sure that I had ever seen anything like it before.  People like it when you have clear convictions and stand boldly for what you believe.  You'll always have opposers and haters, but everyone knows where you stand.  And those who share your views will support you.  I think there is something here my church could learn.

Service, excellence, and conviction.  I think these ought to be applied to a mission that's a whole lot more important than feeding people chicken sandwiches. 

17 October 2012

American and Christian: Maintaining a Biblical Perspective

Election year always gets me thinking about the relationship of my American citizenship to my Christian faith, possibly even more so in this cycle.  It seems to me these two identities are like the proverbial mixing of oil and water.  Many attempt to stir them together with vigor, forcing them to blend and assimilate one another.  However, when you stop stirring you clearly see that they naturally begin to separate.  There is something so intrinsically different about the two that you can't make them into a happy, viable mixture.  You can keep up the appearance of a successful blend if you keep stirring, but that's the only way.

By birth I am an American citizen, and by a second birth I am a Christian.  The former was simply directed by the providence of God without my awareness.  I was an American before I even knew what an American was.  I've been spending my whole life learning what this means.  The latter was also directed by the providence of God, but with my awareness and participation.  The gospel came to me, convicted me, drew me in, and I responded in faith with a commitment to follow Christ.  I've been learning since I was ten-years-old what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Historically, I think it is valid to talk about American Christianity.  We can discuss persons, ideas, theological developments, denominations, revivals, conflicts and controversies, organizations and such things.  However, the message of Christianity certainly transcends any cultural confines or peculiar expressions.  Christianity must be expressed within a culture, but It ought never be confused with the culture (back to the oil and water metaphor).  Therefore, those things that seem to be the defining characteristics of America (e.g. personal liberty, republicanism, individualism, materialism) should be placed under the scrutiny of the Christian faith at all times.  There may be places of congruency for sure, but it's the places of tension to which we must pay close attention - the places at which no matter how hard we try to mix, when we stop stirring they just won't stay blended.  I may be a Christian who is an American, but I'm not an American Christian. 

I deeply appreciate being American.  I believe I have enough historical perspective to understand the uniqueness of the United States and what is good about it.  In many ways what our founders established here and enshrined in our founding documents is exceptional in the development of western civilization, albeit informed by biblical and non-biblical sources.  By comparison, although flawed, the American system has proven to be preferable to many others around the world.  The millions who have fled to this country or chosen to leave home for a better opportunity for life give strong testimony to this claim.  America also has it's scars left by ignoble practices and policies.  America has to own its moments of brutality, unfairness, greedy self-interest, unwise or unjust warfare, and rejection of biblical principles and morality.  Our history is what it is - a combination of the good and bad.

I am simultaneously a citizen of twenty-first century America and the Kingdom of Heaven.  In the first century Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God as both breaking through in the present and something fully realized in the future.  The challenge for me is to prioritize my citizenships by understanding the relevant biblical material and grasping how I should relate the one to the other.   

It is clear that no matter in what time, place, or under what form of government that we find ourselves, God has given a principle of submission to authority.  Much discussion has taken place throughout Christian history about this idea.  However, the idea itself cannot be questioned unless you want to call into question the authority of Scripture itself.  Many do wonder at what point can a clearly oppressive government be resisted.  This is a vexing question to which Scripture does not give us explicit directions.  However, we do have certain examples in Scripture than can be applied. 

The Hebrew midwives resisted the Pharaoh's murderous orders to kill newborn boys.  "But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live" (Exodus 1:17).  Not only did they defy the Pharaoh, they also lied to him when he demanded an explanation.  Additionally, we are told that God approved of the midwives' behavior.

Another example of defiance is found in the story of the book of Daniel.  Daniel had three friends that were exiles in Babylon.  The narcissistic King Nebuchadnezzar had decreed that he was to be venerated through a huge golden image of himself.  However, Daniel's friends (Hannaniah, Mishael, and Azariah) didn't have to think twice about such a command.  They would certainly not bow down and worship (or even feign worship) to an idol and take from God what was only properly His.  They would not submit.

One last biblical example will suffice to make the point.  Shortly after the ascension of Jesus, Peter and the other Apostles found themselves at odds with their own people.  The message of Jesus raised from the dead evoked tremendous hostility from some of the religious/social leaders. Peter and John found themselves in prison and being threatened.  They were told to stop spreading this message about Jesus.  They responded in this way:  "Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20).   They clearly defied those in authority.  Later Peter and other Apostles found themselves in prison.  God miraculously delivered them out of jail, but instead of finding a safe place to hide, Peter and his pals made a bee line for the Temple and started preaching Jesus again.  Here is what followed from Acts 5:27-32:

When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. 31 He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

The Bible gives examples of those who rightfully did not submit to commands or expectations that squarely put them at odds with the clear will of God.  Therefore, the Bible does not teach a tacit, unlimited submission to governing authorities.  Those authorities can cross lines that conflict with obedience to God.  However, on a daily basis we are clearly instructed to render submission and respect to the authorities that God in His providence has placed over us.  We should consider carefully and seriously the teachings in the following texts.   

Romans 13:1-7

Let every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

1 Peter 2:13-17

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. 16 And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. 17 Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. 20 And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.

In general, because of biblical precepts, we are to be respectful and submissive to those who govern us - even if we don't like them.  We are to recognize the providence of God and trust the character of God who has established them, even if we deem our government dishonest and/or incompetent.  We are to pay our taxes.  We are to pray for those in authority as we honor them with our actions.  Jesus himself spoke to this when He was questioned about it.  He concisely addressed this dual citizenship for the believer, neither dismissing and making light of civic duty nor diluting devotion to God or mixing it with nationalism.  He upheld both spheres of duty without confusing the two.

Duty to country is one thing.  Duty to God is another.  The two are not necessarily hostile to one another, but sometimes they have been, such as with the Apostles among their own people, Christians in the Roman Empire, Anabaptists in Europe and the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. Many other examples could be given.  Allegiance to God must always trump any allegiance to my country when push comes to shove morally or theologically. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum from cynicism, a critical spirit, and a rebellious heart in regards to government is the glorification of country and an idolatrous patriotism.  An undiscerning patriotism easily turns idolatrous.  It can run right over that ultimate allegiance to God and can steal the glory from Him to whom it solely and rightfully belongs.  In the Old Testament God asserts, I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another,nor My praise to graven images" (Isaiah 42:8).  In the Ten Commandments God alluded to this same idea when He declared, You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.."(Exodus 20:4-5).  Because of the fact that God is God, He alone is worthy of our glory, praise, adoration, and devotion.  Nothing should displace the worship and honor that is only rightfully His.  Because this glory is rightfully His, it is completely proper for Him to be jealous for our devotion. 

Now, this is not to say that a believer ought not be a patriot.  On the contrary, I believe that our Christian duty is to be patriotic and serve our country and be the best of citizens.  As stated above we should honor our leaders and submit to authority.  We should be willing to contribute to the common good and sometimes to make personal sacrifice.  However, I must be careful not to elevate my love for country to the point that I lose perspective.  My love of country must be filtered through the lens of my Christian faith.

I have on more than one occasion watched Christian people be moved more by the American flag, patriotic songs, and recognition of veterans than by contemplation of the cross, songs of God's glory, and the preaching of the Gospel.  And I'm talking about in the church building in a so-called God and Country worship service!  The hearts swell with patriotic pride, the sentimental symbols move people to tears, and the stars and stripes gets the glory.  I believe that if we had eyes to see more clearly, we would perceive what blasphemy it is to confuse this with worship.  Now, don't take what I've just said the wrong way.  I'm a patriot.  I put on the uniform and serve my country.  The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday (although I don't think there is actually anything particularly holy about it).  However, I can't allow anything to share the limelight with God in worship. 

In addition, although I can be grateful for my American identity and the freedoms I enjoy, I am unwise to find my ultimate meaning in being American or to boast in my country.  Scripture makes it crystal clear where I find my significance and what I ought to be most charged up about!  Paul wrote, "But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14). 
My Christian world-view encapsulates my identity as an American. Historically speaking, the United States of America is just one of the great political and military powers in human history. There is no reason to think that America's dominance in the world and the prosperity that comes with it will continue indefinitely. Every empire has risen to displace another, had it's period of dominance, and ultimately experienced decline and either oblivion or a transition to something less significant. Many believe that the signs that we are at the beginning of the end are already evident. We simply don't want to acknowledge it.  If the second return of Christ is still in the distant future, there is no reason to assume that America will necessarily continue its economic and military dominance in the world. 

Augustine, in his mammoth City of God, contrasted what he called this perishing earthly city with the eternal city of God. (Someday, I'm going to actually read the whole work)  The occasion for his writing this work was the fall of Rome in 410 to the Vandals.  Augustine developed a philosophy of history within a Christian worldview.  These two "cities" exist together and a believer is a citizen of each in this world, but it is only the city of God (i.e. the Kingdom of God) that perseveres gloriously for an eternity.  Every earthly city (empire) will rise and fall and be terribly flawed along the way.  Therefore, our hearts should be captive to that city of God, not to sinful, temporal, man-made countries.  This is a huge work and has much more in it's content, but this is the gist of it.

I do believe I have a sense of great appreciation for my American citizenship.  I cherish the basic freedoms that are part of this culture.  I count it a privilege that I will be able to go to the poll and cast a vote in the election of our next president.  My guy may not win if I find myself on the side of the minority, but I am happy still that our votes decide the outcome (except that our antiquated electoral college system makes it possible for a candidate to receive a majority of the popular vote yet still lose the election).  Not only is it a privilege to vote, I believe it is part of my Christian duty as a good citizen.  There will never be perfect candidates, but I must choose between the two, deciding which one best inculcates principles, values and commitments that best line up with biblical, Christian ones.  Notice I said, best not perfectly. 

I will hold on to my American identity because it is important to me; however, it is something that I must hold on to loosely.  America is wonderful and imperfect; it is a land of freedom and idolatry; it is a perishing city of this world like all the rest.  I will cling tenaciously to my Savior and He will ultimately hold on to me without failure.  As a citizen of the city of God I know who my real King is and who is Lord and to whom every knee will eventually bow and every tongue confess to be the legitimate ruler of all.  I want to declare my appreciation of America, but my total, undying allegiance will only and always be to my Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.   



01 October 2012

The End or Just the Beginning?

Yesterday I concluded a five-part series of messages designed to challenge boldly our church to be the church it ought to be under the Lordship of Christ.  I last wrote in this blog on the day after the first of these messages, in which we experienced a tremendous response.  That response sent me to musing about revival (see previous post).  Now a month has passed since then and we have now concluded the series.  It was a good month.  The spirit within the congregation was good and on four of the five Sundays we saw people make commitments.  Most significantly, we saw three yesterday make professions of faith in Christ as their Savior.

Now, it's time to move on to what is next.  However, I have the feeling that what we just experienced was not a neatly packaged "revival" time with a starting and ending.  My prayer is that it was the beginning of a culture shift.  My hope is that God is beginning to move in the hearts of many about what this "church thing" is really all about. My expectation is that this is the beginning of an increasing movement toward overall better spiritual health.  There are many good evidences that this is happening.

I hope that we won't forget the five challenges set before us, because these are what ought to define what we are as a church.  These can continue to serve as a guide for our purpose as a church. Here are all five:
  1. to worship with passion
  2. to pray with conviction
  3. to grow (in God's Word) with intention
  4. to fellowship with determination
  5. to serve with compassion
I believe that it's still possible that what we are in the beginning of revival that will only continue to progress and intensify.  Our conception of revival is like a flash flood of enthusiasm.  But what if it can be a gentle rain that simply persists, resulting in real and significant change?  Again, time will tell and hindsight will let me better evaluate.  But in the meanwhile, I'm praising God for the good work I see in people's lives, and praying that He will break our hearts over sin and fill our hearts with love for Him and people and bend our prideful, stubborn wills to His.  I hope that in months or years ahead, I'll be able to look back and with confidence point to September 2012 as the beginning of a movement of God that brought dramatic change and growth to First Baptist Hazard. 


04 September 2012

Is this Real Revival?

I have been praying for revival for years.  My heart is desirous for genuine revival within my church and in my community at large.  I see the sad state of churches and my heart cries out as the psalmist did, "Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?" (Ps. 85:6)

This past Sunday (Sept 2) something very much out of the ordinary happened at First Baptist Church, Hazard, Kentucky.  It happened with the beginning of a five-part series of messages that target five areas of Christian significance and commitment.  I'm packaging these messages as five dares.  The basis of the five dares comes from Acts 2:42-47.  Here, we see a snapshot of the early church's activity.  It's easy to draw from this description of the church five fundamental purposes, or commitments of the church.  Many before me have seen these in this passage and utilized them in preaching and writing.  Herein lies nothing revolutionary.  However, I have felt led at this time to leverage this passage to challenge our church to be what we ought to be all the time.

The first dare this Sunday was to begin to worship God with passion.  Simple. Basic. Understandable.  After explaining the challenge and preaching from John 4 on the topic of worship, I gave an opportunity for the congregation to respond to the dare.  I simply asked if they would take the dare truly to worship God with passion on Sunday mornings and see what would happen in their lives personally, in the church, and how it might impact their community.  I gave a specific challenge that contained three parts.  I wanted to leave them with something practical and measurable. Here is how I challenged them to put passion into their worship:
  1. To be faithful in attendance to Sunday morning worship (passion = priority).
  2. To invite others to come with them (passion = entuhiasm). 
  3. To participate with heart, mind, and voice (passion = affection flowing from understanding).
When the invitation to take the dare was given, the vast majority of those in attendance came forward.  By the time the invitation concluded the front pews were packed with people who took the dare - practically everyone.  It was a solemn moment.  I was almost speechless myself.  Many people were moved to tears.  There was an undeniable heaviness and joy.  I prayed for us and we dismissed.  Many lingered afterward in excited conversation.  I did not know what to think.  But eventually, the building emptied, we turned off the lights and went home. 

I've spent the last two days processing that moment.  I've laid awake thinking about it.  It seems I've been in constant thought about it.  It has consumed me. I'm hopeful and hesitant at the same time.  The haunting question that keeps turning over in my mind is simply this: "Is it real?"

Revival by it's very nature is a season of obvious spiritual renewal and enthusiasm.  It's something that comes and goes, but should leave a lasting transforming effect on those who have experienced it.  However, attempting to determine if a revival is genuine is difficult.  How can you know for sure?

I'm certainly not the first one to struggle with this question.  Actually, a man of God much smarter than me delved deeply into this very subject.  My mind goes back to him and what he said so well in 1741.  His name was Jonathan Edwards, he was a pastor in Massachusetts, and his church experienced something remarkable.  However, many didn't know what to think about it.  Some embraced the movement as a true work of God; others were skeptical and didn't like certain aspects of it, particularly the emotionalism that accompanied it.  In response to this divide Edwards wrote a short work to address revival called The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God.

I recommend the entire work to you.  But here is a summary of the main ideas.

First, Edwards unpacked reasons that we cannot assert that automatically dismiss a movement as not being the work of God. We cannot dismiss what may be revival... 
  • because people's minds begin to be extraordinarily preoccupied with spiritual concerns
  • because people become unusually emotional (either with fear or joy)
  • because people have an unusual enthusiasm and excitement
  • because there exists some examples of insincerity among some
In other words, sometimes people will nitpick even a true movement of God in order to cast doubt on its authenticity.  Edwards wisely warns us to be slow to judgment.  Just because certain aspects of a revival may push us from our comfort zones, doesn't necessarily invalidate the movement.

Second, Edwards lists several positive things to look for as evidence that true revival is happening. Genuine revival is marked by...
  • a renewed and elevated esteem for Jesus as declared by the Gospel
  • resistance to Satan's interest (issues related to lifestyle choices)
  • a greater regard to know and obey the Bible
  • a greater spiritual discernment
  • an increased love for God and others
Edwards was simply a pastor reflecting on his experience and observations with his Bible in hand.  However, Edwards was no simple pastor - he thought deeply about these matters.  I find his thoughts 271 years later still incredibly relevant and useful.

My heart desires real revival.  I don't want to settle for some manufactured imitation that will not lead to real transformation.  My prayer is that God stir and awaken us in such a way that we cannot and will not ever go back to business as usual.  I suppose only time can give us the perspective we'll need to measure if the revival was real.

In my former life as a seminary professor, I taught a class on American Revivals.  We studied the history of revival in our country and looked at many figures involved in significant times of revival, such as Edwards.  At the end of the class, I challenged students to collectively come up with a definition of revival.  We worked on it together for days.  I still have this definition scribbled in my notes from that class.  I don't remember exactly which students to give credit to, but I still find this statement useful for me today. 

"Revival begins with the work of God's Spirit and is realized through His willing and responsive people following a period of spiritual apathy, resulting in conviction of sin, individual repentance, reconciliation between persons, renewed obedience to God and His Word, increased prayer, increased personal holiness, and in the salvation of the lost."

I'll continue to pray, preach and watch with a hopeful and honest eye in the weeks ahead.  I'll be thinking of Edwards and I'll use these students' definition (because I think it is a good one) as a measuring rod for what's happening at First Baptist.  May God give us real revival that we can declare with bold assurance because of the evidence.  I never expect the intensity of real revival to last, but the effects (or evidence) will, if the revival is indeed real. 


13 August 2012

How Should Christians Vote in November?

American politics is messy.  It always has been and shows no sign of ever diverging from that course.  Those seeking the highest office in the land have always had to play the political game to a certain degree.  Those seeking office have always pandered, postured, and pontificated.  However, if you read, listen and really pay attention to what the candidates themselves put out there and look at the actual track record, you can get to the values and ideals of the man.  You often have to go beyond the sound bites of what passes as news these days and spend a little time digging into each candidates own websites and publications.

Without a doubt the driving issue this election year is the economy.  We've practically forgotten that we are still at war, and social issues have moved into the background.  It's natural that people are concerned about economic issues.  We see what's happening in Europe, we see our own financial mess, and we wonder if we going the way of Greece.  With these economic concerns comes much anxiety and fear.  Many people just want to know who can make us secure and put us back on top with the right strategy.  I know that where I live, the coal industry is being systematically picked apart by stifling regulations and a shift in energy policies.  People here are worried.

Even though I live in a place where the economy is worsening and some of the worse-case scenarios for the future are seriously frightening, I believe that the most important issues in the upcoming election are moral.  I believe this because my world view is a Christian one. This world view leads me to the conviction that a country can either do things that recognize a moral God with certain expectations, or disregard Him and do what is right in its own eyes.  The leaders that we elect make these decisions.

The greatest need for America is spiritual awakening.  However, I'm not looking to my presidential candidate as the means by which God may bring it.  If God brings awakening, the biblical pattern and historical reality has been that He will work it through His people.  It will have to begin with Christians getting boldly back to what matters most.  It will happen when churches quit being social clubs and get back to being houses of prayer.  In this upcoming presidential election Christians need to vote as Christians ought to vote - on God's side.

Now, I'm not going to say that one or the other candidate is God's choice.  However, I am asserting that every Christian ought to evaluate each candidate with the Word of God and prayerfully discern who honors God's moral standards better.

I submit that all our issues are ultimately moral at their root.  We talk much about economics, rights, policies, and opinions.  However, every issue is inseparably tethered to moral issues that simply won't go away.  And these moral issues should concern us most.  There are two steps to developing Christian moral thinking about political issues.

First, every Christian must be honest with himself and acknowledge whether he or she truly believes that the Bible is the Word of God with an authority that that label would imply.  Many give lip service to the "Good Book", but live as if it has no consequence on their thinking whatsoever.  Furthermore, many Christians who acknowledge the Bible are extremely ignorant of what's in it.  This is a major problem. 

Please, don't buy into some kind of foolish nonsense that you can be a Christian, but you need not care to know what's in the Bible about the important moral issues of our day.  That's like claiming to be a devoted Kentucky Wildcat basketball fan and never watching a game!  Whether we're talking about Christian values or basketball, the word for such inconsistency is the same - hypocrisy. So, first nail down your conviction about the Bible and understand that your values must be informed by the Bible alone.  I know that this is a narrow view.  But where else would a Christian get his or her values?  We need such a guide from God.  Left to our own we will be swept along with the trends of the majority because of the pressure to conform.       

Second, once we have settled in our hearts to let the Word of God guide our views on moral issues, and we know the content of God's Word on these issues, then we must have a stubborn devotion to the truth.  You and I should know what God's Word teaches that informs us about the practice of abortion and about homosexuality.  We need to know what principles the Bible proclaims about war and the treatment of the poor.  We also, need to know in what ways the Bible speaks to work and economic exploitation.

Take for example the dismal economic recession we have now been in for the past four years.  The reason we are now in the mess we find ourselves is because of greed - a moral issue.  Banks were greedy and irresponsible, the government was greedy, and too many consumers were greedy, living above their means.  It was just a matter of time before the bubble burst and people began to reap the negative consequences of such greed and unwise fiscal policies.

The national debt is a moral issue.  Entitlements are moral issues.  Waste and irresponsibility are moral issues. 

In November you and I will cast a vote for our next president who will cast vision, create policy and wield influence for the next four years.  I challenge you to look at all the issues through a biblical and moral lens.  I firmly believe God wants us to align ourselves with what His Word teaches us about economics, sexuality and family, life, war, and what it truly means to be a compassionate society.  God has never endorsed a political party, but I can't help but think that God would want his people to choose in our republic a leader that best possesses commitments and intentions in regard to moral issues that best line up with His Word, which is His will. 

Don't be captive to anyone, any party, or any agenda. Let your mind, heart and will be captive only to the Word of God all the time, even when you exercise your privilege to vote.  It may be your privilege, but if you are a child of God, you have been bought with a price and you are not your own - ever (1 Cor. 6:20).       

18 June 2012

Thoughts on "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation"

I know that I'm late to the party on this one, but pastoral and family duties have captured my attention over the last three weeks.  So, I'm just now sitting down to digest the document that has created the most recent stir around the SBC.  The statement was posted on www.SBCToday.com on May 30, and entitled "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation."

I guess it was just a matter of time before one group fired the first serious shot at the other in the growing tension among Calvinists and Anti-Calvinists in our convention.  This is unfortunate, but not surprising.  Hopefully, we will quickly agree to a cease fire, before this brouhaha escalates.

Just after a cursory reading of the statement two immediate observations are clear.  First, the document appears to be the product of fear.  Second, through the statement, Calvinism itself is mischaracterized through oversimplification and overgeneralizing.

In the preamble, the statement identifies a growing menace in the convention whom it labels the "New Calvinists."  The document recognizes that Baptist history in undeniably filled with both those who have been Calvinists, those who lean toward Calvinism and those who lean away from it.  However, the author(s) of the statement fear that "some New Calvinists seem to be pushing for a radical alteration of this long-standing arrangement."  The preamble draws up a clear "us" versus "them" mentality on the issue of Calvinism.  The document speaks for an unidentified "they" who "do not want Calvinism to become the standard view in Southern Baptist life."

What is clear is that the writers of this document fear Calvinism.  It reads as if a conspiracy is afoot to impose a Calvinistic understanding of salvation into our convention.  Although I have, like many others, observed a clear resurgence of Calvinistic theology in our convention, especially among the younger generation, I have not perceived any movement to amend our confession of faith to make it more Calvinistic.  I have not heard of any desire to make Calvinism a litmus test for employment or appointment.  However, it would appear that those who oppose Calvinism have an anticipation of such things, which is creating this fear, which has caused them to pull the trigger with this statement.

The document is made up of ten articles that alternate between "We affirm" statements and "We deny" statements.  There are 10 of the former and 15 of the latter. The "We affirm" statements generally repeat what the Baptist Faith and Message clearly affirms.  Therefore, the "We affirm" statements don't really serve a constructive purpose.  They simply repeat positive statements that already exist in our convention's confession of faith. 

The focus of the document is the "We deny" statements.  In other words, this is what the author(s) really wanted to say!  Most of the "We deny" statements are direct shots at their understanding of Calvinism and its theological implications.  As I read these statements, I can see the proverbial straw man being erected so the fight can commence.

According the statement, a Calvinist's understanding of grace necessitates a denial of man's free will.  Additionally, a Calvinist's understanding of predestination, sin, election, and God's sovereignty necessitates a denial of man's free will.  Here seems to be the rub for these self-proclaimed "traditionalists" - they fear Calvinism strips man of his free will and negates or ignores all the biblical content related to appeals to man's volition.  This is not a surprise and it's certainly nothing new.  This has been the charge consistently laid against Calvinism since the Reformation.  However, I believe the typical Calvinist would allow for a great deal of mystery in regards to these matters that would not allow for such simplification. 

A person once asked Charles Spurgeon, who was a Calvinist, how he could reconcile God's sovereignty and man's responsibility.  His response was, "I don't try to reconcile friends." The typical Calvinist understands that this mystery is part of our faith, just as is the Trinity and the Incarnation.  To create a false dichotomy between the two is theologically fallacious and damaging to our fellowship.

Calvinism is an explanation of the Gospel; it's not the Gospel itself.  Certainly, there are practical implications for methods based upon one's theology.  In other words, a commitment to a certain theological understanding will inevitably shape ministry practice.  But I believe the "traditionalists" fear the exceptions rather than what has always been normative for Calvinists within Baptist life.

The Baptist Faith and Message has  more than adequate statements on salvation and grace that are theologically inclusive.  Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike can embrace with no reservation the carefully selected language.  Then each can add their own personal commentary, according to their own study of the Word, in their preaching and writing.  However, the commentary ought not be a source of acrimony in the convention.  We should allow such discussions to produce greater understanding and cooperation as "iron sharpens iron."  And you can't put metal to metal and not have a few sparks fly!  But after a flurry of sparks settle the product should be sharper minds biblically and theologically in a genuine spirit of Christian charity.  Let's just make sure we are sharpening our minds and not weapons, guarding our hearts from fear, despair and contentiousness, and staying focused on working together for Christ and His Kingdom.   


10 May 2012

Leading People to Think Biblically about Social Issues

One of my greatest responsibilities and frustrations is attempting to lead professing Christians to think biblically.  I don't mean to just engage in a Bible study, or to read the Bible through in a year, or simply learn it's content.  As a pastor I want to lead believers to think critically about their culture and choices while looking through the lens of Scripture.  In other words, I'm talking about real life application in regards to correct belief (doctrine) and morality. 

Our culture is increasingly chipping away at biblically guided principles for living.  The inertia of secularism, skepticism and hedonism is consistently moving our culture in a more permissive direction, restricting more and more moral issues to the realm of private choice.  Our younger generations are being conditioned to trade any authoritative source for truth and guidance for subjectivity and personal preference.  The discussion tends to no longer be about what constitutes right or wrong on some issues, but what constitutes fairness, toleration, and open-mindedness.

I try to talk about current events with my high-school-aged son in a hope to help him think critically and biblically.  The last couple of days we've discussed the social issue of gay marriage.  Now, that our president has openly voiced that he supports the idea of recognizing gay marriage as legitimate marriage, the discussion on this topic will only intensify in this election year.  Blogs will explode and activists will be invigorated on both sides.  While all the heated debate goes on and the commentators express their views, I want to make sure that my son sizes up the issue as a believer should-with the Bible.  This is my Christian parental duty under the Lordship of Christ and no less. 

As a pastor I feel compelled to challenge my flock to think biblically about social issues as well.  Every believer should be holding up the plumb line of God's Word to all issues - those that involve homosexuality, the sanctity of human life, the treatment of the poor, war, worldliness, idolatry, modesty, entertainment, and so forth.  All of life, for a believer, should be brought under the authority of God's Word.  We must cultivate an intellectual default setting in our minds and a chief desire in hearts to want to know what God says about any issue through His Word and allow that to inform our opinions. 

Politicians pander to their constituents, both liberal and conservative. Few speak or act from genuine conviction. (obviously, I have a trust issue when it comes to politicians) The Bible doesn't pander; the Bible proclaims what is revealed by God to be true.  God doesn't ask for my approval, only my obedient response to His loving call on my life.  Church people need to learn that they honor God when they love Him and not this world.  To love God, we must know what to think about these hot-button social issues.  We love God with how we live our lives, not merely by how we feel. 

Most importantly, we need to be able to defend biblically the position that God's Word constrains us to take.  Too many Christians can't do this well.  Furthermore, a defense of a biblical perspective on gay marriage or any other issue, must be done with compassion and humility of spirit.  There should be a brokenness over sin, not a spirit of anger that reeks of hatred.  Being bold with God's Word is desirable, being a jerk in the name of God is blasphemous. We need to teach our people the difference and model proper Christian boldness for them.

As America continues its slide into greater moral darkness, the church needs to shine even more brightly.  If the church's biblical witness dims alongside the world, then moral confusion will reign as people stumble along in spiritual darkness.  Additionally, the church will lose its power and credibility.  The doctrinal and moral positions of the church can't be left to what I or any person thinks. They must be determined and guarded by a legitimate authority, who is only God Himself.  God informs and leads His people by His Word; His people in turn are commissioned to be salt and light in the world as they proclaim and live out biblical principles and precepts.

Pastors, teach the Word faithfully and clearly to your people!  Teach them to think and live with a biblical view on issues.  Teach them to be bold and loving.  Teach them to put God above all.        




07 May 2012

The High Calling of Being a Pastor

Yesterday, a prominent Baptist church in the town in which I grew up, after nearly a two-year search for a new pastor, finally called a new one.  This church has been historically a conservative Baptist church and one of the larger ones in the state of Kentucky.  However, they made a historic turn by calling a divorced man as their pastor.

This action got me thinking about the high calling placed on a pastor.  It got me thinking about how much has changed in my lifetime on the attitudes toward the issue of the credibility and suitability of a minister who experiences divorce.  I remember when Dr. Charles Stanley, of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, GA became divorced from his wife in 2000.  It did cause some discussion and controversy, but not as much as I would have thought.  His church chose to retain him as pastor.  Stanley was a leader among conservatives in the  Southern Baptist Convention and many felt badly for him and regretted that his marriage had ultimately failed.  However, I and many others were shocked when he reasoned that as long as he did not remarry he was not in violation of any biblical teachings concerning his qualifications.  I remember thinking this would be the beginning of a huge shift in our collective mindset about the issue of divorce and ministerial qualification among Southern Baptists.

The pastor that was recently elected to the church aforementioned is divorced and remarried.  So, now we've pushed the needle a little further.  I neither know him, nor know anything about the circumstances of his divorce and remarriage.  I just know these are the facts.  I pass no judgment on the man personally, but I am prompted to think about the matter in terms of the biblical issue of pastoral qualification.

Being a pastor is to walk in a different place from others within the church.  It can prove difficult to just be a "normal" person.  People tend to put you on a pedestal as an idealized spiritual role model or keep you at a comfortable arms-length distance because of their own uncomfortableness of just being around you.  Some people treat you like a religious fetish, while others will avoid you like the plague.  If you can find just a couple of people who will just treat you like a normal person, you feel fortunate. (This is also true for pastors' wives) 

It's not healthy or helpful to place a pastor on a different spiritual plane from everyone else.  I know, and my wife knows for sure, that I'm just like everyone else.  On the one hand, I have a temper if pushed far enough; I can easily get grumpy when I'm over tired or stressed out.  I can speak a mean-spirited word, and I can be insensitive.  You can catch me in good moments and bad ones - just like anyone.  On the other hand, God has called me to special position as a pastor and that makes me different - not in my human nature, but in my role.  I have a calling which necessitates a higher standard of responsibility and living.

Pastors sometimes act like they are above it all.  This is a mistake.  In my humanness, I'm as frail, sinful, and weak as the next person.  I have to remember this always.  Just because I'm the pastor doesn't somehow make me automatically immune to temptations, bad judgment, and sin. 

Sometimes pastors seem to feel like they must work really hard at trying to be "just one of the guys."  They feel compelled to go out of their way to parade around as connected to those of their flock by accentuating their own short-comings and even behaving badly in an attempt to be "real," such as using expletives in preaching! 

Both these extremes are misguided.

I believe there must be biblical and sensible ground on which to stand.  A pastor is just a man who shares the same humanity with his parishioners, and he is also called to a role in the church that demands that he set the example for all.  This I think leads a divorced man to be unqualified for service as a pastor of a church.  Let me explain why I think this by reflecting a bit on 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

God's Word declares that if a man aspires to be a pastor (overseer), then he seeks a noble and good vocation.  However, this desire alone (or calling) is not enough.  There is more at play.  The Apostle Paul went on to explain to Timothy that the man that the church would call, recognize, and give authority to as a pastor must be "above reproach."  This is the big idea.  The specific items that Paul lists are examples of what being above reproach looks like.  He could have possibly added more if the Holy Spirit had prompted him to, but the list we have is sufficient to make the point. 

The first example of being above reproach is that a pastor should be "the husband of one wife." Through the years many have taken this to mean only one wife - period.  The truth is this phrase doesn't really directly address divorce.  Literally it means "a one-woman man" with the connotation that the man is a faithful husband to his wife.  In other words, he's a good husband, who loves his wife, doesn't cheat on her and maintains a good relationship with her.  Paul goes on to list other items of behavior as examples of being above reproach, including "managing his own household well." 

The pastoral epistles clearly lay down a high calling for both pastors (and deacons).  We should pay attention to all the description that we find there, because each one tell us something about the kind of men God's desires to have leading His congregations.  When these descriptions are taken seriously it should cause a church to be prayerful, diligent, patient and discerning about who they invite to assume such roles. 

God tells us that He hates divorce.  Jesus strongly condemned divorce with a qualification concerning the offense of adultery.  Paul did talk to believers about those who were abandoned by a spouse, but urged married couples to stay married.  Divorce was a reality then, and even more so now.  Divorce was neither an unpardonable sin then, and it's not now.  There is always grace, and the church should always be a gracious people.  Divorced people should not be beat up with the fact they have experience divorce.  By God's grace people must move on to greater faithfulness to God from where they are and the church should always help them do this.

However, the role of pastor is a higher calling.  A pastor will not be a perfect person - I hope no one suffers from such a delusion - but he is called to be THE example in his church.  He is to say, like the Apostle Paul, with boldness, "follow me as I follow Christ."  He can't be a stumbling block to others in his specific behavior, overall character or example.   

I'm afraid the truth may be that our church culture is now wanting pastors in some ways to become more reflective of the culture.  Marriage has become practically disposable in America.  More and more marriages fail and more and more people are choosing not even to marry, but simply live together.  Maybe our churches are beginning to think that a divorced pastor will be more compassionate and connect better with others who have gone through the same experience.  I do wonder how many people on the committee that recommended this pastor are divorced.  I think that would be interesting to know.

At a time in our culture when the bar most desperately needs to be raised, when we most urgently need to be reminded to be in the world but not of it, we seem to be consistently conforming more and more to the world's lowering standards.  We seem now to be headed down a road that would make insisting on uncompromising standards for pastoral qualification as judgmental and mean spirited.   

It seems to me that a pastor's role, with the Word of God as the guide, is to reach down and help people up to where God would call them to be.  If he's going to do that, then he already needs to be where they need to go.  Being a pastor is not an easy calling.  The work is not easy and the biblical demands on who you need to be are high.  Divorced Christians certainly have a place right beside those who have not been divorced in the Kingdom's work.  However, the man who is going to be responsible for teaching and leading the flock must be above reproach - a divorced pastor immediately invites reproach no matter how nice, genuine or otherwise qualified he may be.      


27 April 2012

Four Dimensions of the Call of the Gospel

I observe that many words become so familiar and so elastic that they begin to lose significance.  For example, the word evangelical is popularly applied to any non-Catholic Christian group.  I've even heard the practically contradictory term Evangelical Catholic - an oxymoron if there ever was one! This word has moved so far in application from its origin that it often isn't helpful because it lacks specificity.  Other words become anachronistic.  Take the word ring in relation to your phone.  In the truest sense no one's phone rings anymore, just as nobody tapes the ball game on TV and most do not roll down the window in their car (I still do in my '98 Dakota).  We all know what we mean when we use these words in these contexts, but there is now a certain inaccuracy in it.  This is just what happens to language over time and I think it's interesting.

As a pastor there are two words that I want to make sure do not fall victim to the inertia of time.  I want to make sure that the meanings stay forever tethered to the original intent.  These words are call and Gospel.

The word call comes from the Greek verb, kaleo - "to call."  The basic idea is simple.  The word means to invite or summons; to call for a person or call a person to a task.  The exact nuance depends on the context within its usage.  However, when we run into the idea of call or calling in the New Testament, the emphasis is always on the one doing the calling, which is God.  Whenever we see call in relationship to God or the things of God, it is rooted in the authority of God to give the call.  Whether it is about the call to salvation, the call to specific ministry, or the call to holy living, the call itself is about God and not so much about us.  When I call one of my kids, I do so with a God-given parental authority.  I may call them out to correct behavior, I may call on them to perform a task, or I may call them for a conversation just to see how they're doing.  The point is that whatever my call may be on them, they should respond because I have authority over them.  Hopefully, they know as well through word and deed that I love them.  When God calls, my responsibility is to listen, understand, and obey.

The word gospel comes from the Greek noun, euaggelion - "good news."  Of course, this good news of the Bible is about Jesus, the Messiah - the fulfillment and revelation of the promise of God.  Jesus came to both bring good news and be the Good News!  He is both proclaimer of it and its content.  Jesus came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.  Those who became His disciples began to preach the good news of the Messiah (Christ), who was Jesus.  His followers would suffer for the sake of this good news. 

When I take these two words and put them together in the phrase the call of the Gospel, I want to know specifically what this means to me and to the church to which I tend as shepherd.  The call of the Gospel, of course, begins with the individual call to salvation.  This is the first dimension of the call of the Gospel.  A person must be born again, spiritually regenerated, become new within, be freed from the chains of sin, be adopted, and cleansed and purified by the blood of Christ. In other words, a person must be saved.  This most radical change comes through faith in Christ alone.   

A second dimension, once we are children of God, is to listen and obey our Master, Jesus.  He has clearly given His directions to His followers in Matt. 28:16-20.  Once we have become a disciple, He tasks us with the job of making more disciples in Him.  A disciple (Greek - mathetes) is a "trained one" or "one under instruction."  As one learning about how to follow Christ, we are to be helping lead others to follow Him.  Learning how to do this is actually part of growing as His disciple.  The command to "Go and make disciples" necessitates evangelism for that is the first step of any person's discipleship.  Beyond that we are to baptize and then teach.  As believers are called to be on mission together in the church, we don't have to search for our purpose.  It is simple and clear - make disciples.

A third dimension of the call of the Gospel relates to the cost of discipleship.  Jesus made is clear that even before we make the choice to commit ourselves to following Him, we need to count the cost.  He stressed that truly following Him meant obeying Him above all else.  He told us that sometimes this would cause difficulty in family, sometimes this would mean sacrifice, sometimes this would mean persecution and difficulty.  Jesus told us to lay our own lives down each day and follow Him.  The image of carrying our own cross is to convey the thought that we must die to self and make Him life's priority.  How is this kind of genuine self-sacrifice possible?  It can only happen when it flows from a heart truly converted by grace that beholds the beauty of Christ and naturally seeks to honor and obey God. 

A fourth dimension of the call of the Gospel involves leadership.  Jesus is Lord.  He is the head of the church.  We are disciples of Jesus.  However, the Apostle Paul gave a most peculiar instruction to the Corinthian congregation.  He told them to follow (or imitate) him as he followed Christ.  We know that Paul never taught that he was sinless or even hinted at it.  In fact, Paul admitted that he often struggled with sin and had to work at dying to sin and living for Christ.  Nevertheless, he could boldly tell others to look at him and imitate his behavior because he was pursuing Christ.  Paul was not saying that he was some kind of spiritual middle man.  But he was writing to immature Christians who were still very confused about a great many things!  If they were having difficulty getting their minds and hearts around some issues, they could at least look at Paul and listen to him and watch him.  It's kind of a terrifying thought to tell a group of believers, "hey, follow me and do what I do and you'll honor God."  However, it would seem that this is exactly where God would have us arrive.  I don't think this was just a special role for Paul.  As each one of us mature in Christ, we should reach a place of godly confidence and boldness (not self-righteousness and arrogance) in which we reach out to others and become spiritual mentors.  A pastor should definitely be this for others, and he should be leading others to do this as well.

The call of the Gospel demands radical reconciliation with God that leads to a total paradigm shift of priorities that results in counter-cultural lifestyles that bring glory to God and to the Son, Jesus.  The words, call and Gospel, cannot become confused with other words like heritage, tradition, or denomination.  Even if we substitute the word religion, we are in trouble.  The call of the Gospel is specific to one person - Jesus.  The content of this good news is specific, the mission is clear, the costs are foretold, and the consequences are eternal.  Let's make sure we get it right and keep it right!           

28 March 2012

Give Me Resurrection Day, not Easter

What we commonly refer to as Easter is less than two weeks away.  How do I know this?  Because the pallets at Wal-Mart are loaded down with candy, plastic eggs and grass, and an assortment of stuffed bunnies.  Moms are purchasing that new Easter outfit for their little girls and boys.  And they will be adorable!  I can hear church choirs polishing up every note on this years cantata.  Our small town is planning our Holy Week luncheons. The red buds and the dogwoods are blooming, and I even saw some plastic eggs hanging from one.  Everywhere I look I know that Easter is just around the corner.

Our culture's preoccupation once a year with Easter is a paradox for me.  On the one hand it's nauseating.  Easter is too often a shell of a Christian holy day prettied up with pastel-colored, pagan wrapping. It often has about as much substance as that chocolate bunny you bit into when you were a kid and discovered to great consternation it was hollow (not to mention is was pretty nasty, cheap chocolate anyway).  Easter is a bizarre part Christian, part pagan, and part commercialized day.  Easter makes me sick.

Resurrection Day, on the other hand, is a wonderful opportunity. Resurrection Day is about an event that changed everything.  Many people will choose, for reasons they find hard to explain, to go to a worship service on Resurrection Sunday.  Many are not coming truly to worship.  Many are not coming because they are genuinely seeking God.  But the fact is, they are coming.  As a pastor I have a splendid opportunity to boldly proclaim the mystery of the Gospel to those who need to respond to it.  I suspect most of them won't have ears to hear, but a few may.  Right now, I know is a wonderful time to invite people to worship on this day.  I will have the privilege to present the significance of the resurrection from God's revealed Word.  I will be tempted to scold many present for their incredible hypocrisy evidenced by their attendance on the special day, but I must resist this temptation. (by the way, I have done that before and it is a mistake).  My job is to draw them to the empty tomb, put it in context, and apply it to their lives as clearly and forcefully as I can as God gives me strength.  Resurrection Day is a great opportunity for the church (and not for having an easter egg hunt for the kids).

So, over the next few days I will be inviting people to worship on Resurrection Day while trying not to lose my lunch every time I encounter Easter.  Then, on Resurrection Sunday I'll do my best to communicate that every Sunday is Resurrection Sunday and the Gospel is for all year long.

24 February 2012

Name Change for Southern Baptists?

Here we go again.  Leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention are once again batting around ideas related to concerns that the denomination's name is antiquated and no longer adequately descriptive of the denomination as a whole.  Now we have learned that the task force that has been studying this issue will bring a recommendation to the annual meeting in New Orleans in June to allow congregations to adopt the informal moniker of Great Commission Baptists, while maintaining the formal and legal status of Southern Baptist.  If I understand this correctly, this means that congregations that find themselves within a context in which they believe it would be advantageous not to advertise themselves as Southern Baptists could opt for this new label - Great Commission Baptists. 

As a Southern Baptist pastor I do have a few thoughts on the issue.

First, at forty-five years of age I find myself in the middle of this debate.  I have and continue to rub shoulders with both the Millennial generation behind me and the Boomers and GI generations ahead of me.  I'm an older Gen-Xer, so by definition I'm a little lost, confused and angry (so I'm told!).  However, I think because of where I am generationally or just by my nature, I see the merit of both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, among the older generations within the Southern Baptist Convention there is great attachment to the label and to the denomination itself.  These folks can remember a greater time of cooperation and strong Baptist identity.  They tend to care deeply about Baptist distinctiveness and Baptist accomplishments.  Among them runs a strong us versus them mentality.  They have increasingly watched the Baptist label fade in significance in their children and grandchildren.  This isn't easy.  They have watched the Baptist Book Store,  The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, The Annuity Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Broandman Press become respectively LifeWay Christian Bookstore, LifeWay Christian Resources, Guidestone Financial Resources, and B&H Publishing Group.  They can remember when Convention Press, which no longer exists, turned out works for discipleship training that gave great attention to Baptist distinctiveness and doctrine.  The Baptist world they once knew is just a memory, replaced by clandestine Baptist organizations.

On the other hand, among the younger twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings there is a conspicuous disregard for the label of Baptist.  I don't mean that this is hostile in most cases.  There remains, for the large part, a commitment to baptistic doctrine and practice.  The only exception I observe here is in the area of church organization and governance.  There continues to be a growing trend toward the incorporation of Presbyterian style organization with the introduction of elders as an official office along side deacons.  I believe this has been one of the unintended consequences of the resurgence in Reformed theology in the SBC.  Otherwise, these younger guys preach and teach the Gospel, including adherence to believer's baptism by immersion.

However, there is a huge difference with many of the younger pastors and church planters out there in SBC life today.  It seems they have observed a preoccupation with Baptist identity that has been detrimental to reaching their generations.  It's not that they don't agree with historic Baptist doctrine and practice, they just don't think that's the point.  Furthermore, they appear to think that the label comes with significant negative baggage to a lot of people they want to reach.  Therefore, many of them bury the SBC affiliation deep in their websites.  It's there, but you often have to work hard to find it!  For many of these younger fellows this is a calculated choice.  They don't really want to look or sound like the stereotype of Southern Baptist that many have in their minds.  Furthermore, they are more apt to forge non-baptist partnerships and be more ecumenical.  They are not liberal in their theology or lifestyles, they just don't want to make a big deal out of being Baptist.  If they perceive that the label Baptist gets in the way of forging relationships with people whom they want to share the Gospel, then they have no difficultly playing down their Baptist heritage and connections.

Currently, in my small town of Hazard we have a case study going on in this debate.  The fastest growing, largest in attendance church in town is a new church plant that launched last fall.  The pastor is young, conservative, Baptist in upbringing and education, and a delightful guy.  His church is a "community" church, not Baptist in name.  Yet, it is Baptist when you look at the fine print, and as a church planter this pastor is a recipient of CP money.  Here is the truth.  He has been able to reach people in this community that would never give First Baptist the first look.  Why?  Top among the reasons I believe is the negative reputation many perceive of the 114 year-old church.  Would they hear the same Gospel at First Baptist?  Yes.  Do First Baptist people treat visitors with hospitality? Yes.  Could guests truly worship at First Baptist?  Yes.  So what's the difference?  Well, there are differences in our styles.  So, style may be a factor, but I'm not convinced that's the bottom line.  Certainly a new work has a lot of energy and excitement that just comes with the newness factor.  But I'm beginning to be convinced that the significant factor is that many in our community have a bad impression of First Baptist specifically and probably Baptists in general.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm getting more sympathetic with those who downplay the Baptist label, even though I still don't like it.  It's regrettable that First Baptist has not secured a better reputation over our long history.  I think we have to own that.  However, I don't know that ditching the label is the answer.  In my context, my choice is to change the reputation, even though I know that change will come slowly.  This has to happen at First Baptist Hazard, and I think it has to happen church by church all across our convention.

I've observed at convention meetings that it seems that at least 75% of new church plants go by names that leave out the Baptist label.  (I'm guessing at that number).  Part of me bristles every time I hear "community" or "fellowship" replacing "Baptist."  I admit I have an emotional reaction.  But that's when I have to get a grip and ask myself why.  After I think it through, I begin to see the other side and I begin to get it, even though I still don't like it.

But here is the point.  I believe our task force has missed the mark.  I realize that their job was to come up with an alternative label that didn't use the word Southern.  But for those who have a desire to change the name it's just as much or more an issue with the word Baptist.  I'm afraid that "Great Commission Baptist" will scantly be applied because of that reason.  Young church planters are not going to use it because it still contains Baptist. (not to mention it's just a little cheesy).

The hard work Southern Baptists need to do is that of mending fences, loving their neighbors and improving their reputations.  Middle-aged guys like myself need to be honest about this and get to work.  As much as I cherish my Baptist heritage, I know that God's Kingdom is not a "Baptist" kingdom.  It's much bigger than that.  However, I have no shame in being Baptist because I believe that label stands for many important things in doctrine and practice.  I will not run away from the label.  I want to communicate why the label is historically significant and what it stands for.  And I want to work to improve its reputation in my community.  As for all the young church planters who choose to hide the Baptist name even though that's what they are-that's their business and it's not a hill for me to die on.  However, I probably won't be able to help myself from still giving them a hard time.

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