Wednesday, May 17, 2017
I have been ruminating on how often a pastor should be gone from his flock. How many outside engagements should a pastor take per year? How many Sundays should he miss for vacation, denominational responsibilities, or preaching invitations?
The answer lies somewhere in what specifically your employer allows (namely your Elders or Board), in what your desire might be, in how many invitations one receives, and what you request (or need) for rest, and in what simply is a failure to fulfill ones’ responsibility in the discipling through preaching of your primary charge.
The answer to the question of how many absences from the pulpit is slightly different, as there are times when the pastor is not absent but he opens the pulpit to a guest preacher, missionary, associate pastors, etc. Taken together with the pastor’s absence from the church this can amount to a considerable amount of time away from his preaching presence and ministry.
I have known some pastors who were amazingly gifted (and sought after) but seldom left their pulpit for out of town engagements. I have known some who simply hated to share the pulpit, even with associate pastors who desperately needed preaching time, or refused to relinquish it for missionaries or special speakers. At the same time I have known some who seemed always to be gone, who seemed to accept any and all invitations to go somewhere else or be anywhere else than where their congregation expected them to be; at their own church preaching on Sunday.
The pastor who is always gone will most likely soon be gone, permanently. Congregations expect to be pastored by the pastor they have hired, and they expect the person they pay to preach will actually do so on most Sundays. There are reasons of course some pastors are out of town or who give over their pulpit to others, some good and some not so good.
The danger with discussing good and bad reasons is that sometimes these reasons are not obvious. A pastor may be having some internal struggles, even deeply psychological ones that he is not consciously aware of and hasn’t come to grips with yet. So, even if it looks legitimate, a pastor’s absence may in fact stem from a negative impulse.
If a pastor feels constantly criticized for his preaching he may prefer to preach to people who don’t complain, or where he can possibly preach one of his best sermons and be fairly certain it will be well received. Where his own people may seem bored to hear him week after week other places may see him as a novelty and think he is pretty exciting. Of course if he actually went there (and became their pastor) they would eventually be bored with him as well, so instead of resigning his charge he uses his main employment as a financial base while he keeps traveling to get positive feedback from strangers.
Instead of the people being bored, the pastor may be bored, and seeks outside engagements because he loves novelty and varied experiences. This leads of course to the question of how much he really loves his own flock, and does he seek to shepherd them effectively. If he only sees himself as a preacher and not a shepherd then he won’t care as much about shaping the congregation, or discipling them, in the direction of conforming them into the image of Christ.
I had a Ruling Elder who loved me and he actually liked my preaching. Sometimes he would come to Session meetings with a list of dates that I had been out of town or absent from the pulpit. He was keeping score, and he would remind me of how much time I had missed. This always seemed to happen just before I was to make a request to be gone one more Sunday. As annoying as this was to me it was actually helpful.
I hate saying, “no” to anyone who asks me to come and preach. It certainly pumped up my ego, made me feel needed and important, and somewhat necessary for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Being reminded that I had a responsibility gave me stability and kept me grounded in reality.
In my particular case the Session had agreed that I would have a certain amount of time for vacation, and another amount of time for my Army Reserve duty. If I exceeded that time I would have an unpaid leave of absence. Unfortunately, a few times, the Army took more of my time than I had planned for as they sent me off to war, but they did pay me while the church did not have to do so. Special requests for my teaching or preaching from outside the congregation had to be filtered through a Session committee which would permit, or not permit, another absence.
I was asked to do seminars in prisons, be a camp speaker, be a missions conference speaker, take foreign mission trips, and received various other kind of invitations. At the same time I often felt nobody noticed me or invited me to the really important (popular) speaking opportunities. Most of this was an insatiable need within me to feel important, and that was certainly fleshly, part of my sinful fallenness, a lack of faith in Christ’s love for me, a failure to see and appreciate my true identity and worth in Christ, and just the plain sin of pride.
I actually loved preaching to my own congregation and seldom felt disappointed in their response or appreciation for my preaching. They seemed dismayed when I was gone, and complained hardily if the person preaching in my absence was not very good. I could use up all my own vacation time going somewhere else to preach, and then be exhausted. This certainly ticked off my wife, but made me feel embarrassed if I ever thought to complain to the Elders that I needed more time off. I often felt guilty for being away, and I had this one Elder who would make sure that I did. I loved him for it, and I needed it, as I would have failed to be faithful in my call to my own church.
So, it is wise to not only make an agreement with your Elders about how often you should be gone, but it also important to have that agreement “policed.” If the Session doesn’t hold preachers accountable the “spooky” spiritual nature of their calling seems to make all their choices to go somewhere else and preach “God’s will,” when it is not. I certainly believe in rest, in vacations, in sabbaticals. I believe in missions, I believe in study times. My problem was that I wanted to do it all and my congregation’s problem was they simply wanted a reliable pastor; what was wrong with those people?
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
I had a hard time sleeping last night. It is sometimes like this for me after I preach or speak at an event. I am often agitated about the mistakes I have made in my sermon or speech. I feel guilty and that I have disappointed the Lord. Usually this does not come about because someone has complained or criticized me. It is extremely rare for anyone to criticize me to my face after I speak, and I suppose I should be very grateful for that. I just jump all over myself.
Let me assure everyone that I know I’m forgiven, oh praise God for that, and that I am loved by my Heavenly Father! It just takes some time to work out the emotions when I think I should have done better. Maybe I failed to connect some of the thoughts and arguments, maybe I failed to rely on the Holy Spirit when I was speaking (I get really angry at myself if that is the case.) So, the purpose of this article is simply to restate my argument from last night in a way that I hope will be more coherent. I desire most to give glory to God and to be faithful to His Word.
I had the honor and privilege of speaking at the annual Hope for the Inner City banquet. They are a faith based non-profit that seeks to pursue Christian community economic development in Chattanooga. This was the tenth anniversary of their merger with Inner-City Ministries, and the 45th anniversary when I helped to found the original organization, Inner City Missions, Inc. back in 1972. Man, am I old! Though both organizations have had their struggles they have tried to be faithful and to help people rise up and prosper both spiritually and economically. I am thankful and proud of their efforts.
My remarks were based on the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18ff. “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
This of course is the very familiar passage which is used at mission conferences and challenges us to go, and to make disciples of the nations, and we do that in the practice of baptism and teaching people to obey everything Jesus taught us. I am someone who grew up in the inner city of Newark, NJ and then was called by God to plant a church in the city. The communities of the poor are something the Lord won’t let me forget in terms of my personal calling and the reality of their need.
We usually see this term “nations” or “ethnic groups” as just that, particular nations or ethnic groups. I have been thinking about African American urban poor communities, Native American reservations, poor white trailer parks and communities as also coming under that “ethne” word in the passage. They are communities that need to be discipled, although we don’t usually think of them that way – unless we are a church planter among the poor, and then we do.
I know it is currently important to look upon poor communities from an “asset based” perspective than simply that of need. But, seriously, when you grow up there and live there it is a little hard to ignore the deficits. The poverty, the gangs and violence, the drugs, the broken families (I grew up in one), the failing public schools, the alienation from the police and justice system, the lack of grocery stores, viable jobs, etc. It goes on and on, generation after generation, and the despair and frustration can be daunting. I know there are assets, and the greatest of course are the wonderful people created in God’s image who live in these places. Their potential is huge and untapped. Yet, the trouble is real.
We know such troubled places didn’t create themselves. We are aware of the history of economic racism, red lining, discrimination in housing, and employment. We do not blame all of the problems of the inner city on the bad or immoral decisions of those who might live there. People make immoral and bad decisions in every kind of human community. It is just that when such overwhelming circumstances are against us then we need something inside us to help us through, and out, and over them.
So, my remarks last night were based on two calls and two challenges. The first call is simply the call to salvation, which I believe is like a miracle. As the Scripture says, “Therefore if any man be in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) We think that the people who live in the communities of the poor need Jesus, they need to be converted. As Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16) If something can only happen by the power of God it must be a miracle.
One might object that is just the old fundamentalism that seeks to get people saved but doesn’t take their physical needs or being seriously. I would say it is much older than fundamentalism, it is essential Christianity. People need to be saved, and especially the poor who need an engine of hope in their hearts to rise above the circumstances in which they live.
The second call is that to discipleship. Now discipleship is that part of the Great Commission which tells us to teach people to obey everything that the Lord Jesus taught us. So much of American Christianity has been built on the idea of the instant miracle, where someone prays the sinner’s prayer (“Lord Jesus come into my heart and forgive me of my sins, amen!”) I am thankful that sometimes we see this miracle happen in people’s lives, where their life is changed immediately.
However, even in the ministry of Jesus, he led his disciples for three years and even after that they struggled, deserting him and betraying Him. No, he did not fail in discipleship, he forgave them, he taught them, he changed them. My point is that it was a process, and some people are saved that way. We are not sure exactly when it happens, but in the process of loving, mentoring, befriending, teaching, and training the transformation takes place. The Holy Spirit opens a person’s heart to realize Christ died for them, and loves them, and they can be forgiven and adopted as a child of God, and they believe.
People who come from so much trouble, dysfunctionality, and brokenness need their value system changed. They need hope, and they need models, and opportunity. Now, why isn’t this happening?
Here is where I want to offer two challenges. The first is to the church, the local church that is anywhere near the communities of the poor. If we persist in having church indoors, staying in our buildings, commuting to the neighborhood but never interacting with the neighbors, then we are not going to have much opportunity in sharing Christ with the poor. For that we are going to have to get out on the streets, hang out on porches, play ball in the community centers, and speak with people. Hold back yard bible clubs, have home Bible studies, whatever ways you can to share Christ.
The poor are not a project for the middle class do-gooder, they are real live human beings. Now, there is obviously a reason people avoid poor communities. Sometimes it is scary, we are afraid, there is potential violence. That has always been true in the history of missions. There have always been places too dangerous to go, too unhealthy, where people die and get killed. Places that don’t seem to even want Christ or seem to hate us for showing up. Yet, Christians went. They went, they shared Christ, they fed the poor, healed the sick, and lived among the people, and yes sometimes it cost them their lives. So, more Christians came, and the Christians among the people grew bold and lived out their faith, and nations were discipled.
Pastors and Christians need to get up out of their buildings and go out among the people. Just show up and hang out and as the Lord gives you opportunity become involved in God conversations. Ask questions, share your faith, invite folks to church and into your life. Now, if you are a pastor who doesn’t believe the Bible, or you don’t believe that people can be saved or need to be, well, you should stay in your office and not speak with anyone. You will just screw them up.
The second challenge, and this is specifically where I challenged people to support Hope, is to help the folk we meet in the community to enter into a long term training and development effort. It is not enough just to go around asking people to make decisions for Jesus; we need to call them to a lifetime of discipleship. This discipleship of the poor includes economic discipleship, and programs like Hope are trying to create a conveyor belt experience where principles of how to work, and then skills to do a job, are taught while a stipend is given to provide incentive to keep going in training.
My hope and vision is to see the community discipled. Yes, I know neighborhoods need viable jobs; that pay enough to allow families to get off of welfare and make progress. We need entrepreneurs, new industry, relevant training that translates into work opportunities. We need good schools; we need good government, better housing, adequate and affordable medical care. Yes, all of those things. But to have an engine of hope to pursue them, to use them, to profit from them, people need a relationship with Jesus Christ. I am calling on the church to get out among the people and disciple them as individuals and the community so that our neighborhoods might be changed. Church, do your job!
Last night I mentioned that even right now some young person is driving around with a gun in his pocket, looking for someone to shoot. This is our reality, and sure enough last night there were a few more shootings. How are we going to change that? Well, some of those folks are God’s elect, and they can and will be saved if we will actually get into their lives and experiences with the love of Christ. The need is urgent and real. May God give us the courage and faith to do so!
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
As someone who has been involved in the struggle for racial reconciliation for most of my life and ministry I am concerned at times with some of the rhetoric and conversation I hear and read from my side of the fence. What I mean by “my side of the fence” are those folks with whom I am in general agreement, those who claim Christ and who seek justice.
I am often dismayed, but seldom surprised, with statements made by people on the “other side of the fence;” those who are racist, and especially those who actually seek to defend hostile racial attitudes while still claiming to be Christian. I am also not that surprised by people we might describe as “on the fence;” those who want to take a neutral stand, who seem superior and condescending, who act like they don’t really have to take sides. This last group thinks they can escape blame for fostering prejudice, supporting an unjust status quo, or can justify being silent on those days when a righteous voice is needed.
I might be able to level criticism at these other people, at least at their statements or positions. I might be able to in general raise a prophetic voice at attitudes and commitments that I feel are antithetical to Christ, which I believe is my calling as a preacher and minister of the Gospel. However, I am constrained to make such statements, and to hold attitudes, and to foster only those emotions which are obedient to my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. This constraint means I must be restrained in returning evil for evil. The rules I live by are different than those who do not claim to serve Christ, and I only have a select drawer of weapons which I can legitimately use in this war.
So, when I read or hear from those with whom I mostly agree say things, or write things, or post, or blog, or podcast, etc. that I think are going in a direction of bitterness, or retreat, or separation, or self-segregating, or revenge, or arrogance, or self-pity, then I feel a bit discouraged, if not a bit annoyed. I also find myself wanting to give a warning.
As a white man I am very conscious that I ought never to attempt to speak for African Americans, or actually any group, including my own. I am certainly not the spokesman for white people. I am however a spokesman for God, and I certainly do not mean that in any presumptuous or arrogant way. This I accept as God’s calling on my life, and according to the power that God invests in me, and always bordered, controlled, and examined by the Scriptures.
There are those who write or say provocative things, and though sometimes the “truth” they are sharing might contain some of the truth yet not the complete truth, it sounds clear and radical enough to get our attention. Again, I am speaking about those on “the same side of the fence” as me. This provocation presumes motives, then seeks to stir up a reaction, and those who don’t hold to Biblical rules (even while claiming to be Christians) respond with hatred and racially vituperative rejoinders. I can roundly condemn all this racial garbage, all this meanness, all this spiteful and nasty commentary, and I most emphatically do.
At the same time I don’t feel as much pity for the victim because he obviously started the conversation in the way that he did to provoke a reaction but not necessarily to solve a problem. In other words it looked like he wanted attention but was not seeking some positive change. Such provocations cloud motive, and they are sharp enough to make people angry but not prophetic enough to bring repentance. On top of that the person who created the provocation tends to blame everyone else for not coming to comfort him. So, he repeats the cycle, and continues the alienation by blaming whole groups of people for those who acted sinfully. “…As much as it depends on you, live at peace with all men,” Romans 12:18 says. I thought that was Scripture, not, “as much as it depends on you start fights with all men.”
In this world of injustice, and then within the smaller world of those seeking justice is an even smaller world of those who seek justice but do it in the name of Jesus. I confess with great sorrow that not all of those who associate themselves with Jesus as savior have any commitment to seeking justice. In this relatively small world, (in this Christian community of justice seekers), there are various hurts, pains, reactions, intentions, commitments, and strategies.
There is no way any of us will completely know someone else’s pain. Proverbs 14:10 says, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” I cannot deny how much hurt someone is feeling. However, I believe we can usually discern whether or not their response is Biblical. This goes back to being constrained and restrained by what Scripture teaches us. The delicate thing is that when people are hurting it gets a bit dicey to say to someone that they aren’t handling it well. However, if enough of us keep our mouths shut when our very own brothers and sisters, and comrades in this fight, divert us from Jesus’ endorsed behaviors and strategies we risk being taken down some very dark roads.
There seems to be in this present generation the idea that if a person feels hurt or can express that hurt in racial or ideological terms then they are free to say stupid things, even if in fact those things are not really Christian but sound like justice. As I read the Scriptures I think we are told to test every prophecy, which I take to mean we have to align ideas, comments, statements, and proposals for action up against God’s Word. The test isn’t how authentic the feeling might be, or how sympathetic we might feel to someone who feels hurt or slighted, or even brutally attacked. The comparison is with Jesus, who being mocked and reviled did not respond in the way he surely could have, with ten legions of angels to kick the snot out of the world.
The real heroes of course are not those who have simply had their feelings hurt but who have physically suffered, who have lost property, wholeness and health, family, and even their own lives but still forgave and rose above the bitterness and hate which would seem so humanly understandable. I am convinced it is miraculous for God’s people to respond to injustice in such a forgiving way, but these are the miracles which God uses to convert the lost and convince the haters of God’s mercy and justice. We still need these kinds of miracles, and we need less of petty sniping and bitterness.
There seems to be a certain amount of insecurity and fear about how to deal with unjust power structures and privilege, even if residual from history. Some of the discussion I hear or see is not the call to faith strategies, but about power strategies. Are we after racial reconciliation or not? To not be for it means to be after racial alienation and satisfaction in segregation. To not be for reconciliation now, to refuse to pursue it until there is “racial justice,” is to lose all hope that the Spirit of God is able to create new realities on earth before all is made right in heaven (and that is the only place and time when true justice will actually be brought to pass).
We can retreat into the status quo and seek to create our own little strongholds protected from the storm of reality. Let us acknowledge that this is indeed retreat and not a quest for justice. It might feel comfortable, but it is an illusion, and without the pursuit of reconciliation in the church we allow the enemies of justice to grow and perpetuate themselves.
Is the quest for the advancement of minorities in formally white power structures a quest for ego, a quest for status and power (even in the name of justice), or is it a quest for relationship based on love and respect? Is it reconciliation we seek, or simply position? Sometimes those struggles that happen between pastors, between a Senior and an Associate or Assistant are simply personality issues. Sometimes they are pissing contests between a younger man and an older man with the younger wanting position now, or feeling his ideas are better and he could run things in a better way. This is all too human and it doesn’t matter what race you are to have such struggles. We even have black men who don’t want another black man to serve under them because they fear competition, as we do with plenty of white men.
Let’s be practical; can a black pastor work in a majority white church and be legitimately loved and respected if he holds a subordinate position to the senior white pastor? Is he in fact an “Uncle Tom” type token? Is the church legitimately cross-cultural if it doesn’t have black senior pastor leadership? Now the reality is that sometimes people of color are tokens. Sometimes people are hired for “window dressing” and don’t have authority or real influence. Sometimes there is a racial paternalism and patronizing spirit in an institution and this compromises what real reconciliation is and demeans individuals and institutions. Truth needs to be spoken to power to help correct such misguided patterns of church life.
Yet, there is the corresponding damage of people making assumptions about black people in white institutions, and this has happened in all kinds of institutions and organizations, not just the church. Some have offered generalized opinions that a black person in white institutions has to be a “sell out,” a “self-hater,” or “somebody’s boy.” Wow, what racist destructive trash people sell and buy, as if no one could legitimately earn or keep place, privilege, and power on their own merits and not forget who they are or where they come from.
I have lived long enough to see some racial myths broken down. I remember being told, “White people in the PCA will never submit to a black pastor.” Well, in the Presbyterian Church in America that has certainly been proved wrong as most of the black senior pastors we have do indeed pastor majority white churches. Such racial myths will keep being made up and propagated; they usually have a motive, hold a portion of the truth, but are not usually positive or helpful.
I write this with the conviction that Jesus want us to be peacemakers and that the only consistently Biblical way to do that is through peace, not by fighting. As the Lord is my witness, and as my whole life of preaching might attest, I am not trying to protect anybody’s feelings from the painful conviction of truth. I just don’t think being mean, demeaning, or needlessly insulting is the same as “speaking the truth in love.” James 3:17-18 says, “but the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”
Monday, February 13, 2017
On a recent Sunday our congregation sat down to a discussion during the Sunday School hour. We usually do something like this every year in February as we commemorate Black History Month. This year our discussion leader (Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr.) led us through some thoughts on Black Lives Matter, the difference between the concept and the organization.
The continuing discussion brought up questions about protest, the use of protest, and various efforts to bring about justice and righteousness in the community and the nation.
One of my observations about Evangelicals, especially those of us in the PCA, is our hesitation to take public stands, or to become involved in protests or demonstrations. We are reticent to make or do anything which might be construed as a political statement. At one and the same time of course the whole country pretty much knows where we stand on political issues, both by our statements, our sermons, our social media discourse, and our votes.
I read and hear criticism of pastors who write or speak very much about social or political issues. I also read or hear comments that tend to spiritualize any approach to issues, such as calling to prayer, and a negative opinion about going outside the doors of the church to march, or demonstrate in some way.
While many in our churches see any discussion or mention of social or political issues as straying from the Gospel I tend to see our reticence as a dogged maintaining of an often unjust status quo and a refusal to make our faith known concerning issues of justice. We have in our church used prayer as social protest. We have used protests at abortion clinics as evangelism.
This last year we had a very public prayer walk and march, with seasons of prayer as we began and when we finished, in protest against recent gang shootings and killings in our neighborhood. Was it spiritual to pray? Of course, blessedly so! Was it political to march? I think so, but it probably didn’t seem that way to most people who are against murder. Gang leaders might have taken it another way and as soon as you have two sides to an issue, whether they be right or wrong, you have politics.
What often comes across during a “spiritual” rebuke to any public demonstration by Christians is that often the “issue” is what really matters, and this is the underlying offense, and not usually so much the behavior of demonstration or protest. I think we always need to be discerning about both, not only to how a protest or demonstration is conducted but also as to what the issue might be.
As believers we must be non-violent, we must be loving, even to our enemies. We have to follow the example of Jesus who when he was reviled did not answer in the same way. Another problem some have with protests is that good guys and bad guys might come to the same rally for the same reason, and conduct it in the same way. So, if an anarchist, or a socialist, or a Muslim, or a Catholic, or a Democrat, or a Tea Party member shows up at a rally in which I am standing for something righteous, or just, then I welcome them to the event. However, not everyone shares our values as to being loving, meek, non-violent, and seeking conciliation.
There are times when we cannot stand with those who will take actions, or use strategies, that are antithetical to our faith. For me there are uniforms that would be so antithetical to my faith that I couldn’t stand with them even if they were against the same things I am against. I don’t think I could stand with a Klansman, or a Nazi. A nudist would bother me as well.
I believe we have to always be angry at evil. There is no other godly way to feel about it. This does not make us angry people. I think we always have to be angry at oppression and injustice, but this does not mean we are called to slander, belittle, misuse, hurt, malign, or commit violence against those who practice it. One of the problems with social media protest is that we often assume we know someone’s motives and mock them for a motive we actually have no honest or accurate way to discern. To articulate and describe their behavior is accusation enough. To call for penalty within the law is legitimate and does not make us vicious.
Civil disobedience calls for a lot more thought and justification. Sometimes there is absolutely no other way to protest an unjust and evil law except to disobey it, and be willing to go to jail for violating it, until such laws are changed.
Churches as churches have to be very discerning about what moral or justice issues they will speak about or against, but if they will not speak up against clear and sustained injustice or abuse then they are being disobedient to the Scriptures, hypocritical, and protectors and partners with oppression. One of our problems in Evangelicalism is that we won’t even discuss these issues in the church, so how are we ever going to have discernment about them?
Pastors especially have to know where their place of leadership should be, and when and where they must curtail their political or social involvement for the sake of maintaining a pastoral and shepherding role for everyone to whom they must minister. They must never let their pulpit ministry be consumed with anything but the Glory of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the grace of God, and the call of the Kingdom of God.
This is why pastors are subject to their brethren and have to be humble enough to listen to their Elders. It is easy to become self-righteous when inflamed with the issues of social righteousness and justice. It is also too easy to be passive and negligent in standing for the rights of the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the immigrant. I personally don’t want to sin either way but I think the much more frequent sin, and easier and often taken road is to do nothing; and I don’t believe this is acceptable to God. Lord, give us humility, wisdom, good counsel, strong Scriptural understanding and conviction, sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, faith, and courage!
Friday, February 10, 2017
BEING PROPHETIC WITHOUT BEING A JERK!
In these turbulent and polarizing political times how are we to speak a Biblical and true word to the actions, events, and words of politicians to those around us? Here are twelve tips, especially if you are going to use social media to express political opinions:
· Don’t be rash or relationships might crash. (Watch out for your emotional reactions [to anything] and take time to measure your words. Surely you know someone out there will not agree with you, so in the way you express your argument do you just not care about their feelings, or how they will now feel about you, since you seemed to care so little about them?) Proverbs 12:16, 13:5, 17:27, 29:20
· Don’t be wise in your own eyes. (Be humble enough to get counsel and listen to the opinions of others.) Proverbs 3:7, 15:22, 16:18
· Check it out before you put it out. (Please make sure you are not spreading “fake” news. Investigate the facts first.) Proverbs 14:15
· Stick like glue to what is True. (Always evaluate your words, actions and opinions against what you know the Bible says.) Proverbs 16:13, 30:5-6
· What have you heard assuming makes, out of you and me? Proverbs 18:13
· What you write can come back to bite. (Whatever you put out there is out there, and hard to take back, even if you later apologize or recant.) Proverbs 12:18, 17:27-28
· We can forgive your fumble, if you remain humble. (God gives grace to the humble and it is hard to feel good about beating up on a humble person). Proverbs 4:34
· If you just attack you will get off track. (Always be angry at evil and injustice, but do not make it personal. Love people!) Proverbs 3:30
· We need prophets whose words bring profit. (Is what you are saying or writing helping anybody, are your words moving us toward positive change?) Proverbs 10:21, 15:23
· Don’t get your back up about the blow back. (No matter how kind, righteous, gentle, or correct you might be today’s climate seems to excuse bitter and biting retort. Sarcastic and malicious response is common, so expect it. Be sad, pray, forgive, and love. Don’t return word for word, argument for argument, if there is no learning.) Proverbs 15:28, 17:14, 24:29
· If you can’t be taught you will surely get caught, in your own arrogance. Proverbs 12:1, 15:31-32
· A godly walk means sometimes you’ve just got to talk. Proverbs 31:8-9
Friday, January 13, 2017
Let me start this article by some “up fronts.” Since this article is about a political figure it is therefore a political article. I am not a Hillary Clinton supporter. I am pro-life, I am opposed to homosexual marriage being made legal, I am concerned with radical Islam. I am also pro-civil and human rights and I believe the government has a role to play in upholding justice and the care of the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Okay, so these are a few things up front in case you seek to put me in a political box. I didn’t vote for either majority party candidate for the sake of my conscience.
I will try to pray faithfully for our new president, as I tried to do for our departing president. As I seek to honor that office and seek to refrain from slander, gossip, or malicious talk about the President I am still committed to speaking out as to my concerns. This means that sometimes those comments will be negative. I am concerned about the behavior of President-Elect Donald Trump, and therefore concerned about our future as a country.
I am afraid our president elect is putting himself in the position of being suspected of some shady things. This reminds me of the dilemma that Saddam Hussein got himself into when he just wouldn’t let inspectors come back into Iraq while the U.S. government suspected him of having weapons of mass destruction. Many people accused George Bush of lying and using the WMD fear as a pretext for war. I blame Saddam for creating ambiguity and defying the United Nations which ended up in our invading his country and in his eventual execution. This is simply an example of creating ambiguity, and not of anything else in regard to Saddam Hussein.
The ambiguity Mr. Trump is creating has to do with Russia. He won’t disclose his tax returns, he won’t be open about his dealings with Russia, and seems to be in denial about Russia’s hacking of the DNC computers. He seems to prefer Putin to many of his fellow Americans. So, what are we to make of these things? He has the opportunity to be transparent, and if he is an advocate of closer relations with the Russian leader he really needs to be transparent, or else the suspicions are going to linger. We certainly hope there will not be further reason to suspect his motives due to some strange realignment of our national interests which might just compromise the freedom of other countries.
I remember when the arch-conservatives were paranoid of the Soviet Union (the rest of us were somewhere between concerned and terrified, and not that there weren’t Americans who advocated for communism). There was a book in the 1960s called, None Dare Call it Treason, by John Stormer. The John Birch society loved this book. It smacked of some of McCarthy’s accusations back in the 1950’s, with the suspicion that communists had infiltrated the State Department. The Obama administration was accused of making room for Muslims in the government (which by the way is quite legal) and this was seen by some as giving way to the enemy, (which in not Islam but radical Islam). For any President to compromise our national interest or strategic security due to his own personal interests would indeed be a step toward treason.
The way Mr. Trump has handled things leaves open the idea that the President Elect might be vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian President. The fear is that if he can be manipulated by them he could be used as a Russian stooge. Is it possible that a Republican President, not a Democrat or a liberal one, is in fact our worst nightmare for an unethical national compromise with an adversary that invades other sovereign nations (Georgia and Ukraine), supports and cooperates with our avowed opponents (Syria and Iran), attempts consistently to intimidate our military in fly-bys, uses cyber warfare against us on a fairly regular basis, and plays hard ball with us and our allies with the threat of nuclear weapons? Ambiguity leads to just these kinds of questions. Admiring strong leadership is ridiculous when it comes to strong arm dictators.
When I see conservatives, especially Evangelicals, defend Mr. Trump from even being asked legitimate questions I am a bit chagrined. Some of the same people who slandered Barack Obama incessantly, and insisted he wasn’t even born in the USA, was a Muslim, a Socialist, and a liar (and all of this before they mentioned what policies he stood for that they didn’t like) don’t seem to realize how hypocritical they sound today. At one time character seemed to matter to these folks but evidently not recently. What protection do any of us have for the pursuit of policies in which we believe not being thrown overboard by someone whose integrity we cannot trust?
What I am left with is the impression that conservatives are saying, “if your policies are in agreement with mine I don’t mind your lack of character.” I think a President’s character is always an issue, as well as their policies. They both count as either one can hurt or help us as a nation. Having endured top secret security checks during my own military career I know that consistent loyalty to America matters when you work for the government. Not only was loyalty an issue but so was susceptibility to financial or moral compromise. It wasn’t taken for granted, it wasn’t simply accepted by verbal affirmations or denials, and it had to be verified and proven. But now, for our highest office it is evidently to be taken simply by trust while we are given no means of verification.
Defending Mr. Trump cannot be done simply by attacking the policies of Barack Obama, or those that Hillary Clinton might have advocated. He cannot be defended by simply bashing the press. This situation has nothing to do with them, it only has to do with someone in whom we will all have to (at least to some degree), and want, to trust. Our freedom of the press is one thing that helps the American people to believe that we have something on which we can rely to ask probing questions. I certainly hope we will not have another Richard Nixon in office, nor a Richard Nixon type scandal.
The President is someone we all will need to act wisely and faithfully in America’s interest and not his own. Mr. Trump is, at this point, leaving us with lots of questions that come from an ambiguity which he has created, that leads to fear, and will create not only continued disunity but increasing cynicism. Again, this has nothing to do with his political opponents, nor about changing the election. It only has to do with him and the leadership that he is not giving at the moment. I hope you will join me in praying for him, and our collective future. My hope for that however lies with the God in whom I do trust.
Saturday, December 31, 2016
Today I had one of those interesting moments where all kinds of issues came together for me as an urban pastor. It was all about being a pastor that made the moment happen. I was in a place of business where two young African American women were behind a business desk. One of them happened to know who I was as I had spoken at her church sometime previously.
As I left the place of business the one woman who knew me called out to me and used the title “Pastor.” I said good-bye and went on my way. As I was walking down the sidewalk I heard a woman calling out to me, “Pastor, pastor!” Here chasing after me was the woman who did not know me, and would not have known I was a pastor except for her colleague.
I was thinking I had done something wrong or that I must have left something in the office but her call to me was actually because she wanted and needed to speak to me as a pastor. What followed, right there on the sidewalk, was a conversation that included pastoral issues, but also ones of sociology, history, apologetics, morality, and theology. The pastoral issue was the one concerning her heart, but all the other issues were playing their role.
The essential issue was that she has a man she wanted to marry. She is Christian and he is Muslim. She was looking for someone “open minded” who could counsel them about potential conflict due to their different religions, but yet would be willing to marry them. Here was the pastoral issue, which of course led to the theological issue, which led to the apologetics issue, which meant we had to deal with the sociological, historical, and moral issues.
I was able to distance myself a little by speaking to the reality that Bible believing, Bible obeying Christians would certainly have a problem marrying her to a Muslim. I did not want the conversation to simply be about what I thought versus what she thought. She brought up the idea that maybe the Bible has been “diluted” and that it could be interpreted this way or that. We spoke together some of what the Bible did say, and what she said Muslims believe about Jesus, and what the Bible actually says about Jesus.
Then there came the moment when the existential pain of history cut across the faith of her childhood. The distortion of true Christianity by racism and slavery, and the reality that so many black men were in prison. She began to cry at this moment, and I wanted to join her. We agreed with her about history, about the demographic-cultural-sociological reality of a dearth of eligible black men for black Christian women to marry. I told her that we didn’t need to deny the history, or the realities, but she still had to deal with the claims of Christ or else call Jesus a liar. Is He the only way or not? Everyone is welcome to Him, but there is no way without Him. We spoke of the Muslim view of intermarriage, that it only goes one way, where Muslim men may marry Christian women but Muslim women are not allowed to marry Christian men. Despite all of her boyfriend’s efforts to convince her there really wan’t much difference in the two faiths, which is typical in such relationships, that quest for Muslim domination doesn’t go away.
I asked what church she attended, and she told me, but then said she didn’t respect the pastor for how he lived outside of the church. Here was the moral issue. I encouraged her to get into a church where she could receive good teaching. She yearns for a marriage like her parents, where her father worked hard and was faithful and her mother took her to church every Sunday. That is all she wants, a marriage that had formed and shaped her and that she admired in her parents.
This is part of the pastoral challenge, and pain, for urban pastors. African American pastors and cross cultural pastors who pastor black folk; they must face all of these issues. They are issues of theology and apologetics, but they can’t be easily faced without a knowledge of history, and culture, and sociology. They can’t be honestly discussed without a humble acknowledgement of the sins of the institutional and historic church and the reality of how the true faith has been distorted. These are issues that cannot be honestly faced without some recognition of injustice in the criminal justice system, about the Evangelical church’s failure to evangelize and make a cultural impact on millions of African American young men.
I encouraged her to get in to a good church, one like her colleague at work attends. I gave her names of men who could counsel her and her boyfriend, and who would certainly seek to lead him to Christ. My heart also bleeds for her, and for my country. It bleeds because we are wasting so many young men who could be the answer for her and a million other black young women.
I do celebrate and rejoice in every young black man I have known who loves the Lord Jesus Christ, loves the Word of God, is in touch with his own culture and history, has a strong sense of worth, and self, and purpose. I rejoice in those men who have married and love their wives as themselves, love and participate in the raising of their children, is a model of what it means to be faithful, hard working, and a builder of his church and community. They are here and in more numbers than might be first realized. They are usually quiet in their success.
In some strange way this made me think about the movie “Fences.” The thought that occurred to me was Denzel Washington plays all kinds of characters, and he is good at it. I believe that the one movie role he hasn’t played is that of himself, which is the very model (at least as far as I know about and of him) that is the most to be followed and imitated. In his personal life he is a believer, he is a husband, he is a dad, he does his work well, he cares about people, culture, and society. He is great at playing bad, but even better at living good in the righteous sense of the term. This is the kind of man women need. Actually, we all need that kind of man and we need a whole lot of them for our communities, cities, and nation to be what they should be.
So while I celebrate the fact that we do have some good men at one and the same time we do not have enough of them. We have too many in prison, and even more on the corners. Too many without an education and without meaningful work, too many producing children without raising them. We have too few effective evangelists among them, too few pastors who even know how to speak to them, too few congregations that are bringing them into discipleship. So we end with the “missional” issue.
If you wish to fight me on the idea that there is no missional need, that the churches that exist in the cities are doing fine, that I have in some way misrepresented and that the percentage of broken families, poverty, crime, and violence are really not too alarming, or that the lack of urban black young men in anybody’s church is a distorted presentation I am happy to be corrected. I would just have to say that I am not interested in strategies that “piss on forest fires.” I don’t find church planting by transfer growth or the gathering of the already saved as the answer to these problems. Nor am I impressed by critics of those who do missions poorly as if that in someway excused our lack of mobilization for a modern missions movement not simply among the poor, but among the resistant, violent, and the antagonistic. If the critics ask, “but what about so few evangelistic church plants among poor whites?” or “What about Native Americans and the scarcity of church plants among them?” My answer is, “exactly!” To everyone and every community that is being left unreached and undiscipled, this is where we must go. Citing one unreached area cannot be an excuse not to pursue another.