Monday, December 31, 2012

My Wish Is That in 2013 You Would Catch Fire!

    This is written as the clock runs out on 2012.  I write on a theme that I am sure I have broached several times before but as we face a new year it comes back to mind with renewed vigor.  The context for my subject begins with your relationship, my relationship, with Jesus Christ.  The context could equally be the point of authenticating your life, or giving it meaning, or doing something worthwhile before you die.  The passing of time gives urgency to that thought.
   But I want to begin with Jesus, because it is my understanding that He is what gives our lives meaning, and He is the One who gives them possibility.  Now if Jesus is not God, if he is not the Christ who is come to save us from our sins, then the issue of giving your life purpose and meaning is still relevant.  If He is the Son of God, and if He is therefore equal with God, and if He and He alone is the way to salvation, forgiveness, hope, redemption, and heaven, and if He is the center of all things than nothing else is relevant except as it relates to the Son of Glory.  So, I write upon the theme that since Christ is the meaning of our lives (or else you are wasting yours) then the question arises as to what will you do for Him, how will you live for Him?
    The Gospel of grace does not make this an irrelevant question, at least it didn't for the Apostle Paul, who seemed to live his life as if every second counted and how he lived it counted.  If your understanding of grace is to live without urgency or purpose, but just enjoying His imputed righteousness, then I don't think  you understand grace or righteousness.  Pardon me for having to make a digression about this but I am afraid one might fall into the trap of creating a false choice between a life of intensity, and a life of dependency on grace.  I don't think you can sustain a life of spiritual or ministry intensity without depending on the grace of God to help you live and give you victory, but intense you should be.   This is not the same as a life of anxiety or works righteousness or falsely trying to make up for  your own inadequacies, or trying to prove something to yourself or your parents.  Real grace should wash that out of your system.
    The Holy Spirit has to be the One who constantly helps you figure out the difference, and constantly helps you repent when the focused life and strong work effort are done in the flesh.  It means staying in the Word, staying broken in your need of Him, taking life from the Vine in Whom  you live.  A life of intensity certainly doesn't mean a life without Sabbath, or without joy and enjoyment.
    My message today comes as a preacher who loves the Reformed Faith, and to some degree understands the priesthood of every believer, who appreciates in some measure the value of all honest vocation in giving glory to God, who to some degree understands the issues of giftedness and calling.  I also have some understanding of the failure of many in the Reformed camp, especially pastors and teachers of theology, who have failed to light a fire in the hearts of our young people because they model a theology that it says it doesn't really matter what you do, that the calling to the ministry is no more significant than any other calling, that time is not a matter of life and death. 
   So this is my New Year's message, and that is that time does matter, what you do or choose not to do does matter, and it matters for the souls of men and women, boys and girls, and it matters for cultures, and nations, and the Will of God.  It is as if we have settled for all practical matters for a theology that is simply about our quality of life, the raising of our Covenant children, our materialistic comfort, our security.  Anyone who shakes the tree too much becomes suspect, and we suspect their Reformed credentials.
    There may be some who have honest theological difference here, but I suspect most live the life they live not because they are theologically convinced nothing is urgent, that God does not bring judgment (at least they live as if it is certainly not imminent) but rather, and forgive me if I am too blunt, but because they are too self centered, too lazy, too cowardly.  One other category may be helpful, but you will forfeit that after reading this, and that is some are just too ignorant.
    I have spoken with some who have wondered if God were calling them to "risky" ministry.  Should they go into military chaplaincy, should they plant a church in the inner city?  I am non-plussed when I hear them excusing themselves because such ministries would affect their quality of life, their time with or absence from the children.  Is it wrong to ask believers what price they would pay, would sacrifice would they make, to answer the question posed to Isaiah, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"   So that they might say, "Here am I, send me!"
    The Lord is closer now than when we first believed and we are to redeem the time because the days are evil.  We live in an age of such "grace preaching" that if God were judging our nation or the world no one would admit it because they don't want to give God a bad reputation.  Paul says because He feared God he tried to persuade men.  Maybe we all need such a fresh vision of hell, a fresh vision of damnation, a fresh understanding of bondage to sin, that we would be on fire for God before our neighbors are on fire for eternity.
    Whatever job you do I hope you do it for the glory of God, and I hope your life is a strong witness to the love of Jesus in you and through you.  Yet, let me say that I don't know if you can do anything more meaningful in life than to give your life to full time ministry.  I am not advocating a Church dominated by and for clergy.  I am advocating a holy vocation that affects individuals, families, and communities more than anything else one can do;  if it is done right, if it is holistic, if it is truly Biblical, if it is Spirit filled, if it is one of compassion and love, if it is passionate, if it is prophetic in its call for justice and mercy. (I can just hear some hating this idea, but I won't abandon or soften it so we can all justify our middle class ambitions).
    I am calling for a change in our Reformed culture that gets in touch with the urgency of the Gospel of the Kingdom message, that has a missionary mandate, that has evangelistic fervor, that has a passion and love for the people, all because some men and women have met Jesus and their souls caught on fire and they can't for the life of them have that fire put out, and nor would they want that.  May the rest of your life count, for the One who gave that life to you, and gave it back again.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wishing All Christians Could Experience Church Life That Makes A Difference.

    As I reflect on my years as a pastor I think about what binds and bonds a church community together.  As Christians in the church we make covenants with each other, we confess common creeds, we take membership vows, and if we have been members of the same church for some years we have "gone to church" a lot, together.  Some of us have gone to the same church and sat in the same worship services for years.  Yet, some of us have experienced little community between ourselves, and our relationship has been thin.  We may have common memories of something the Pastor did or said, but for too many of us it is like all having seen the same movie.
    Cults go after this lack of community and hold up the idealism of what church ought to be and their challenge is appealing.  There are of course some who have lived in legitimate Christian community, and there are many wonderful things to say about that, as well as some very practical difficulties.   Yet, it seems to me that the common church goer has missed out on many of the things that are available to make their church life richer and fuller.  Some of the blame for this lies with the member but unfortunately I would have to lay some of the blame on many pastors who have failed to provide for their people some things that can make life in the church intensely fulfilling.
   Of what have your memories been made; from family, from neighborhood, from school?   When you sit down to reminisce do common stories of church life come up, do you have any?  If you don't then this is a symptom that your church life has been relatively empty of experience that grips you.  Now I certainly believe that a strong Christian life means you have spent numerous hours in worship, and that in worship you should have been focused on God and His Word.  I hope that the Word has just washed over your soul and that the knowledge of it has permeated your mind.  However, I also think that if you haven't experienced your Christian life in meaningful community in the body of Christ your theology is not as practical as it should be, and you are probably not as thankful for "church" as you ought to be.
    I am not so much speaking here about emotional interaction in worship, which is a valid subject in itself, but about a lifestyle of love, sharing, fun, common reflection, discussion, challenge, and mission through the agency of the church.   One of the things that really drove this home to me was my experience in the Army.
    During my time as a Senior Pastor I was also an Army Reserve Chaplain.  Every month I went away for a week-end, every year I spent at least two weeks with my unit in the field.  When I was mobilized for war I spent months on end with those same folks.  Time with people, common experiences with people, cemented our relationships and memories together.  No, time by itself didn't bind us together, many of them were not believers, and not really my friends.  I would say some were actually opposed to what I stood for, and didn't like me.  Maybe if were honest I could say the same about some of my church members, but thankfully not too many.  The time spent living together combined with friendship did create a bond.
    My point is that I realized I was growing closer to my soldiers than many of my church members, and that for one simple reason, I spent more time living with the soldiers for two weeks than I would ever spend with some of my members.  I remembered that as a young person growing up in a church I had become close to the teens in my youth group, and to the adult leaders, because we spent a lot of time together in mission, on evangelistic trips, on retreats, in camp
    I have too often felt sad for some of the youth and members of my church because as the years went by they consistently opted not to experience mission, ministry, or devotion in meaningful time spent together.  Some of their "options" were due to conflict with school activities, sports, or just because they looked upon the activities of the church as another social option.   Church members, families and parents of youth who could have, and in my opinion should have, steered themselves and their families into experiences of substance with the church neglected it and thus today have no common memories of mission, of sacrifice, even of conflict with other believers in the midst of trying to get ministry and mission done.  That conflict is great training for realizing the power of God's grace in the midst of spiritual warfare on the mission field.
   Those who have committed themselves to being part of a church plant team, or the initial core group, also get to participate in some intense experiences that will forever color for them what church is supposed to be; shared hope, shared sacrifice, shared fear, shared prayer, and shared victory.
    One of the reasons for this may be a lack of leadership from pastors who have little sense of mission except to think that the mission of the people they pastor is simply to listen to him preach, or defend theology, or be proficient in the courts of the church.  Some pastors can't seem to read the Bible, then look at the world (their neighborhood, city, nation, or the nations) and put the two things together so that they could coherently tell their people what needs to be done.  I wish I could say that I was as successful as I should have been in inspiring my people to be caught up in such a passion for the Kingdom of God that all of them experienced what it means to be in a church that is obedient to the Great Commission, obedient in practicing justice and mercy, and collectively being that city on a hill whose light must not be hidden under a bushel.  I think I can say the opportunites for experience and memories in following the Lamb were at least provided.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


    I would love to see, and hear, a national conversation about guns.  I am afraid however it will take the pattern of most of our national conversations, which are not so much conversations but the staking out of positions and then stating, publishing, and screaming them at each other.  This is exactly the way we have handled the Obama presidency, with its attendant situational conflicts, such as the fiscal cliff,  homosexual marriage, religious rights when it comes to women’s health insurance, and now guns.
    I suppose our conversations could begin with the understanding that not everyone in the conversation will agree with the other parties involved.  I am not sure how one gets the other party to listen, except to go into a conversation committed to doing just that for oneself, and humbly asking the other party to try and do the same.  I am afraid the conversation about guns will suffer from the same extreme position taking that has been evident with just about every other social issue in this last generation. It is something we have just got to change, or else every social and political issue becomes a matter of winners and losers in terms of ideology, but not necessarily in terms of society.
    Previously I have written about the gun violence that affects the inner city, about gangs, and how such violence is a national moral issue, not simply a racial or neighborhood problem.  Recently I noticed an article in our daily paper, from what was the traditional Conservative side of the editorial page, which celebrated the fact that overall violence had gone down in our community at the same time that we had an alarming increase in shootings and murders in the inner city.  This Libertarian editor suggested that we basically create a “red light zone” where things like drugs, prostitution, and the attendant violence of the inner city go on without bothering the rest of the city.  This position I personally take to be immoral, even racist, and an abandonment of striving for the common good.
    Politics has ceased to be the art of the possible and become the art of the intransigent, waiting until the sentiment is swung so the other side can be buried and their voice no longer heard.  Now I do believe that some things are right and some things are wrong, I usually try to hold my convictions out of conscience, and not opportunity.  It seems to me that no one really believes anyone does that anymore, it is only leverage for power, only testing the wind to see which way it is blowing, waiting until personal ambition can be realized.
    It might be a good idea to start with the assumption that though there will always be opportunists, and those who seem to betray their own conscience, many people in positions of influence actually do have opinions of conscience.  They are sincere, and even though in my opinion they are sincerely wrong, we get nowhere by simply ignoring them.  I would add that we get nowhere by refusing to listen to their arguments or concerns.  I think this is even more important once your side has power in their hands.
    Politicians are great at stating that we should put politics aside and do something for the good of America, and what they mean of course is that the other side should put politics aside and help our side, which knows better what is good for America, to get on with it.  One would think crisis would push us towards listening, toward meaningful dialogue, toward a commitment not to leave the room until we have some solution.  But no, our leaders have decided they don’t represent the American people, but their party, their constituency which they have helped to gerrymander so that the electorate they represent is actually their ideological base.  They have failed to represent all of their people, they have failed to represent all of our country.
    Politics always represents great opportunity to do something good, if not great.  It is especially important in a democracy to protect the poor and the helpless, to guard their rights.  Did I read that right, as it flashed up on the television screen, that we lose ten thousand people a year to gun violence?  How many of them are children?  How many of them are folks gone to the other life by instant surprise who had nothing to do with the perpetrator?  How much shock, grief, and mourning must there be from those who loved the victim?
   So what will we do, what can we do as a society?  I say take your pre-conceived convictions and carry them to the table, and put them on the table, and listen to the other side, and agree that something meaningful will be decided before you leave the room.  We will never completely agree with the other, I assume, but surely there is something in a national conversation about guns and violence with which we can agree. 
   We just had a shooting in a school.  Maybe we should have a very practical curriculum about guns and violence in schools.  It might be a good thing to start talking to children in as many places as we can about the potential for harm, and death, from guns and a gun culture.  Maybe we should have a national concern about violent video games, and kids who become isolated.  Maybe we should have a conversation about how divorce and abandonment of children is creating a generation that seeks self-actualization through a false sense of security through the power of violence, with the illusory instant gratification of making believe one has a gun or actually using a gun.  So much of this national scourge is simply due to the absence of fathers.
    Maybe we need to realize that trying to save money by closing down mental institutions has unleashed a wave of individuals who continue to demonize and terrorize their own families.  Maybe we need to realize that guns in responsible hands can protect us from those with guns who have evil intent?   Maybe we should realize that regulations about some guns, about some ways of buying them, about some of those who want to buy them but shouldn’t be allowed to, might be good for all of us?
    As someone who enjoys the freedom to own a weapon, as someone who has enjoyed using them, as someone who knows there are moments where they can be rightly and justly used, I think we need to have a talk, and we need to talk until we have some positive things we can agree on.  Let me make it even plainer, if you are a member of the NRA, call your national office and tell them to shut up until they are willing to go have a meaningful conversation with our national leaders.  Not abandoning their principles, but finding out where we can all agree and then doing something together.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Radicalizing the Middle Class.

    I remember in Seminary, after I had preached my Senior sermon in Chapel, one of my professors gave me a low grade for it.  I went to see him about it since all the other professors had given me fairly good grades on it.  I wasn't sure if his concern was about my exegesis, my hermeneutic, my structure, my delivery, what?  It turned out he didn't like my application.
    He told me my indictment should have been against the rich and not the middle class of which he was a solidly established member.  In some ways I think his comment was probably one of the best compliments ever made to my preaching, no matter the grade it was obvious I had struck home.
    You might be wondering about my taking on an economic class in a sermon.  Let me assure you that I don't think there is anything innately evil or sinful about having money, being rich or middle class.  In fact it has been my goal to help every poor person I know to become middle class, at least.  I would wish all of my church members, all or my family, all of my friends to be millionaires, and to at least tithe faithfully.
    However, as I read the Bible I realize that God calls us to a deeper level of commitment and sacrifice than I believe is generally seen in today's Evangelical church.  While I see that I also see the great and dismal disparity between the people of the suburban/hipster urban middle class church and the poor in our country.  It is not just the disparity in income or life style, it is also the choices that those who can afford to make those choices continue to make.  The choice to isolate one self from the poor, to isolate one self from communities of need, to protect and isolate our children from bad schools and bad children, to focus our congregational giving on our own church buildings and trappings, to continue to give our congregations more toys, more ambiance, more convenience.
   It is as if we are corporately banging on the gate of Eden to get back to an idyllic life, to somehow realize the Millennium through affluence. 
    I am writing this soon after the massacre that took place in the suburban community of Newtown, CT where so many children were killed.  It was a horrible thing on a horrible day and my comments here are not meant in anyway to diminish the evil and pain of it.  But it might teach at least one lesson, and that is that there really are no safe places.  My call is to the people of God's Church to go ahead and risk what might come to you anyway, to pursue those who need you instead of running away from them.
    Why not go after (rebuke, condemn, etc) the rich?  OK, if you are rich consider yourself gone after but I would venture to mention that we seem to have a lot more middle class church members than we do rich ones, and it is not just your money that I seek.  I want your body, your skills, you social skills, your connections, your energy and physical strength, your education.  I want them to be shared with the poor and not just indulged for yourself.
    What about my quality of life, what about the the responsibility I have to raise a Covenant family, what about the freedom to enjoy my hard work and that I was diligent, or my parents were thrifty and stayed together in marriage and gave me the blessings of a decent life?  Why should I have to share with those who parents were unfaithful, who produced illegitimate children, with those who did not discipline themselves to study, did not finish school, and refused to learn how to work hard?  Why can't I find a decent neighborhood, don't I deserve it if I have worked for it?
    I have no practical arguments to make, only Biblical ones.  I only have models and examples of Jesus, I only have the concern of God.  I condemn no one for hard work or effort.  I condemn no one for thrift, for self-discipline, for faithfulness in marriage, for study and achievement.  In fact all of these things are necessary for the poor to eventually truly change their lives.  I only wonder who will teach them, who will model for them these things, who will be able to help them change their value systems or to value what is better than simply trying to survive day to day?
    I think the Evangelical middle class is too secure in its justification of self-centeredness.  What you deserve is not the same as what you should do, or how you should live, not if you have decided to follow Jesus.  Doesn't he call on us to give up ourselves, to take up our cross, to lay down our lives?  If the argument against this is that we all can't be heroes, and that the normal Christian life should be church attendance and faithful service in the choir, and that it is even wrong to load ourselves with guilt about trying to change the world then somewhere I think we read from different Bibles. 
    I don't think the answer to poverty is the work of a few brave inner city martyrs, who sell out their lives to live among the poor and become professional Christian radicals.  We need some of them, but even a few of them can be irritating.  We need a generalized radical attitude among ordinary Christians.  We need whole congregations who desire to include the poor among their ranks.  We need middle class churches willing to share their budgets with inner city congregations; not to give them pretty curtains, but help to feel the needy among them.  We need tutors, we need mentors, we need those who will create industry and business that is labor intensive, we need friends of children who will help them through their lives.  I speak to black and white Christians here, since we have plenty of both races who are middle class and have become irrelevant in their life style for changing anything or anybody.
    I understand that a process is necessary, that first we have mercy tourism, "mercy drive-bys" as it were in which Christians get a taste of different communities.  If our mercy efforts remain that then it is voyeurism, and not ministry.  We need to grow from mercy involvement, to mercy effectiveness, to developmental change.  This has to be done with submission and respect to indigenous leadership and not with paternalistic and patronizing attitudes.  It has to come with sharing of our resources.
   The Lord calls on Pastors to command those who are rich in this present world to be rich in good deeds.  Only Jesus can call on a rich man to sell all that he has and give to the poor, and to follow Christ.  I have been happy to know a few rich folks who are extremely generous, who take their discretionary wealth and target large sums of it to help the poor and to facilitate ministry among the poor.  Most of us don't have that kind of money.  But we all certainly have some discretion, about our money and about our time, and about where and how we do ministry.  I think we all will have to think beyond just the discretionary to the sacrificial if we are really going to spread the Kingdom among the poor.  This is as true for the rich as for the middle class. 
    Radicalizing the middle class means middle class people begin to understand ministry to, among, and for the poor is not optional.  Preaching the Gospel to the poor is not optional, it is the commission of Jesus.  Loving them and defending them is not optional and not a life style choice, it is obedience.
Oh, there it is, being radical is simply being obedient to the One who bids us to come and follow Him.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

When Will We Be Safe From Our Enemies?

In Zechariah's Song, which is in the Gospel of Luke chapter one, verses 67 to 79, we hear the father of John the Baptist prophesying about what his son, and about the Messiah for Whom his son will prepare the way, will do.  Actually one could say that it is really and actually about what God will do for Israel, for His people, for us.  "Salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us-..." it says in verse 71.  "To rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days," it says in verses 74 to 75.
    I think of the history of the Jewish people and how much they have suffered.  I think about the slaughter of children, in Bethlehem by King Herod, and in Newtown, CT, and in all the stupid acts of genocide and war in places like Rwanda, Liberia, Eastern Congo, and it hurts me to use this phrase in describing places where children have been butchered and murdered and that is in this little abbreviation, "etc."
   Et cetera is a blasphemous and obscene word to describe a continuous string of such monstrous reality.  Unfortunately we are reduced to that reality, that this is one of many heart crushing shocks, and it leads me to ask where the salvation is that Zechariah sings about?  Is this a mystic inspiring hope to push us all on to a better day, that if we just keep believing and hoping we might someday see this actually happen?  Is it like the sentimentality of Christmas that so many secular artists sing about, that there is some kind of sweet and heart warming magic on Christmas day that will make everything all right?
    I think Zechariah serves us well to remind us that we do have enemies, that there are those who hate us, that we often live in fear.  I don't like fairy tales that create illusions of safety.  I don't like the denial of poverty, hatred, racism, and the murder of innocents by using banal sentimentality.  Since the world cannot come to grips with a real God, but hides itself in fairy tales like Santa Claus, elves, and good feelings of holiday, it cannot help but produce more God denial in the face of tragedy.  "How could there be a God and let evil like this happen?" they wonder.  So they create ostrich holes of sentimental belief in nothing but phrases like "believe in yourself" and "children are the answer" and "we are the world."  We are the world all right, and we rape, kill, and murder each other, and the babies too.
    Yet Zechariah is used as a prophet to promise us salvation, and he uses an interesting phrase in verse 77, "to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins."  I think the people of the world, the Jews, the oppressed, the fearful, and those fed up with the reality that none of us are safe from madmen, want salvation; salvation from all the violence and the fear that it causes. This I think would most likely include all of those paying attention to reality.  I want to live without fear, to be rescued from the hands of my enemies, and from all who hate me. 
    But the "knowledge of salvation" might be different from simple salvation.  Since John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, called the Christ, and this same Jesus was crucified and not spared from violence or the hatred of his enemies, how then can he save me from fear, hatred, and the hands of my enemies since he couldn't save himself?  I want a bigger gun, a stronger door, and a safer neighborhood and here I am offered the "forgiveness" of my sins.
    The Gospel reality in its clear eyed view of the monstrous nature of people says the knowledge of salvation comes through the forgiveness of sins.  So people are not naturally good and we are not harmonious in the world but both the victims and the victimizers at the same time.  If there is sin that we must be forgiven for then we must be sinners, and if one reads the Bible clearly then one sees that sin is punished by death and must always be so, and if we are to be forgiven someone still must die for our sins, and that is why Jesus indeed did come, to die for our sins. 
    It would be nice to believe that we are not the sinners, not the violent, not the depraved.  We don't need forgiveness but protection, we don't need someone dying for us but fighting for us against those other people who somehow became evil and just how that happened we are not too sure.  God seems sure, He is sure we are the problem and not just victims.  So he provides salvation by coming to die for our sins and forgiving us, and in that he gives us a "knowledge of salvation" that it is and must be something more than protection from evil, since this world seems to have so much of that.  It is, and this is more permanent and extensive than temporal security, salvation from God's judgment on us personally, and a taste and a  part of that judgement is living in such a screwed up world that is broken and full of potentially dangerous, catastrophically dangerous, individuals, tribes, nations, and governments.
    Where then is the hope, where is the good stuff that Zechariah seems to promise?  It is in the reality that though I am in a "world with devils filled (which) should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed His truth to triumph through us."  The knowledge of salvation is not a mystic hope, but a sure foundation that even though we must suffer in this world there is something beyond the misery here which in God's mercy is not all the time, not in everyplace, but enough to brace us to the reality of our own evil.  The knowledge of salvation is that God does have mercy, he does forgive, and eventually for all those who have received that knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of their sins real and existential shelter in the arms of a loving Father who may let our enemies take our lives in this place, but ultimately cannot take from us that which is eternal.  My ultimate eternal hope is that even though worms destroy this body I shall see my God, and that someday upon the earth I will be revealed as a son of God, my enemies vanquished, and I will be finally and eternally safe.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Wear It In A Bad Season!

  My daughter looked at the sweatshirt I was wearing.  It was new and I had just purchased it from Cracker Barrel.  It was a Tennessee sweatshirt with the orange T, which means I am a fan of the
Tennessee Vols.  When my daughter saw it she said, "Oh, you're wearing that in a bad season."  Though some parts of the thought were sad and painful to contemplate she meant it as a compliment.
    Yes, that's right, I am not a fair weather fan.  They are the team I have celebrated, and cheered for, and moaned and groaned about for years.  I am honest enough to admit an abysmal record, bad decisions on the part of Athletic Directors, Coaches, and players.  I have sometimes despaired of what was going to happen, what I knew would happen on certain Saturday afternoons.  I have not abandoned my love for watching them and cheering them on, and I am delightfully surprised when they do some things well.  I have not switched teams, and I don't call the talk shows and rant about how stupid everyone else is but me.
    All of that to lead up to the question of loyalty when it comes to my denomination.  I am one of those people who belong to the Presbyterian Church in America.  Before that I was ordained in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod.  In 1982 the RPCES joined the larger PCA and so I carry around with me the identity of a PCA Teaching Elder.
    If you knew me and my life and background you might wonder why I am in the PCA at all.  I certainly wasn't born into it.  I grew up in the inner city, and I am not suburban.  I am not even hipster urban, more ghetto than anything.  I am white but I married a black woman, and there were not a lot of inter-racial couples when I was ordained period, but especially among the conservative Presbyterians.  I planted a church among the poor, in the city, trying to reach black folk and there were not a lot of folks doing that when I came in.   There were folks who thought it a waste of time, an aberration, and suspect as to credibility as a real church.
    Not everyone thought that of course, I have had great friends, champions of what we were doing and wonderful supporters who wanted us to succeed.  There were some racists who avoided us, denied us opportunity to speaking engagements, support in missions, and sometimes just the denial of the friendship of a colleague.
    When I was first saved no one told me of all the bad stuff of Christianity.  I didn't know anything about racism in the church, I didn't know anything about religious wars, I didn't know anything about hypocrisy and legalism and self-righteousness.  I didn't know about sexual abuse, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse.  I was so naive that I thought Jesus loved me, had died for sinners, and everyone needed to come to know Him like I had come to know Him.  I thought Christians were heroes, people who would risk their lives around the world to tell people everywhere about Christ.  I thought Christians fed the poor, didn't hold any one's race or economic status against them but welcomed them all.   That is what I experienced in the Christians I had first met.
    The Black Muslims brought racism to my attention.  They told me I was preaching "the white man's religion." " Where did they get that from?", I wondered.  I would find out in my reading of history, in my watching the Civil Rights movement unfold before my eyes, and through my own experiences.  I remember when one of my older brothers in the Lord who had gone into ministry came home from his job for the holidays.  The Rev. Elward Ellis was a Chaplain at Norfolk State College, he was African American.  He told me that day, "I am so tired of having Christian piss thrown into my face."
    He was in an African American context where Christianity was being challenged on its historical legacy.  It was like asking the question, "why would you be a fan of a losing team?"  I admit I have less hope for the Tennessee Volunteers than I do for the Church of Jesus Christ.  I am an optimist and I believe someday, maybe before I die, Tennessee will have a winning season, an SEC Championship. and a BCS Bowl victory.  Yes, I hope for the day when Tennessee kicks the stuffing out of Alabama, Florida, and reigns as national champion.  Tennessee, at this writing, is a long way from that.  I wonder if they tell freshmen in Knoxville, "don't have hope, be cynical, mock your school, in fact think about transfer because we have had some bad history here?"
    Christianity in all of its traditions has some bad history, and certainly the PCA does.  Ah, maybe we could say that not just about our denominations but also about ourselves?  Since none of us has represented Jesus perfectly, and actually sometimes downright shamefully, does that mean our Savior doesn't deserve loyalty?  It is silly of course to demand that anyone joining our denomination, or even confessing themselves to be Christian, should know all about our mess before they take up with Jesus or us.  Most of us know fairly little about history when we enter into any relationship, we usually take it from what we see before our eyes and feel from the relationship as to whether or not we can trust it.  Can you imagine marrying someone and then finding out they had somewhat of a sordid past, maybe even sexual relationships before the one with us, and then telling everyone you meet they should know how wicked our spouse has been?  Probably not a good way to examine the past, not kind, not helpful to marital unity, and fairly hypocritical too.
    Maybe I flatter myself but I think I am fairly cynical, bluntly honest, and believe in calling things for what they are.  I have no interest in "white washing" (no pun intended but it is understood) the PCA, nor my own congregation, and not even myself.  I think history is important, for everyone, and young pastors of all ethnicities ought to know as much of our history as they can, and not just the rosy parts. I like to ask candidates if they know the racial history of our denomination.  This to find out if they in fact are racist, or if in fact they care about such Biblical concerns as justice and mercy.  Yet, I don't think it loyalty to tell the kind of athletes who would turn the team around they should go join another team because we have had some bad seasons.
    Sometimes loyalty can be hard to find around the PCA.  We have some ready to have heresy trials for those who differ on fairly insignificant matters.  They threaten the unity of the church.  We have some who want to abandon the church because women aren't ordained, and go to denominations where they don't seem (to me anyway) of being very active in winning people to Jesus or impacting the culture for Christ.  This to me is a threat to the unity of the church.  There are some who seem to rub our sins, our bad seasons, in our face so that those who might bring about positive change decide not to join our church.  This too is a threat to the unity of the church.  I imagine it must be hard for someone with Heisman Trophy potential to be on the same team with someone whose mistakes make the team lose, or look foolish.
    Is the Church of Jesus to be like that, so we go where the money is, where the best have gathered, where everyone agrees with us, where we will suffer no embarrassment?  Get a clue, if it ain't come yet it will, and sometimes for shameful things you can't imagine and your name will be tied to it.  I wear the shirt, in good seasons or bad, and it doesn't have a Tennessee T on it, but a Cross on which my Savior died, and in private or in public I will wear it with you who have named him too as your Lord.  I think it fair for all of us to ask that we be honest about our faults.  I think it fair for all of us to ask each other to be open to rebuke and correction and humble enough to receive it.  Loyalty doesn't buy silence or a failure to purse righteousness.  But, if you will put up with me, and own me as your brother, I will own you too.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What I Want For Christmas!

1.  For Rush Limbaugh to apologize for defamation of character, slander, and impugning the motives of politicians he doesn't like.  I suppose he would have to admit that he does indeed do that, and maybe some of his Christian listeners would have to admit it too.
2.  For Libertarians to stop sounding so selfish, and implying taxes are evil and that a democracy doesn't have a right to make choices based on its values to help those in need.
3.  For Liberals to admit unborn children are human and to realize and admit abortion is destroying not only our posterity but our humanity.
4.  For judges to lock guilty people up so we wouldn't keep hearing of crimes being committed by someone arrested and found guilty numerous times, but still walking the streets.
5.  For the Criminal Justice System to make sense; to stop giving people silly sentences like five live terms plus fifteen years (shouldn't life mean life?), to get back to rehabilitation (since most of these people do return to our communities), and to give quicker trials, but shorter and definite sentences.
6.  To commit crazy people instead of trusting them to medicate themselves (this so they won't be out here killing the rest of us).
7.  To actually fire the entire Congress, at least once, until we get a group that can solve problems instead of making them worse.
8.  For Atheists and people who hate the mention and celebration of religion in public places to be declared their own religion, and told to go create their own private schools, instead of constantly annoying the rest of us.
9. For Conservatives and Liberals alike to repent of demonizing their adversaries instead of presenting positive arguments, rationally presented, for their point of view.
10.  For the Public School system, in every state and federally, to admit that in some places they are a total failure and to give that tax money to any educational institution in those places that can do a better job.  It is time for the anti-religious people to become anti-ignorance.
11. For Cuba to finally be treated like we treated the USSR, and like we treat China, so capitalism and liberal democracy can start bringing change to their government and freedom to its people.
12.  For this country, built on immigrants, to have a rational, understandable, fair (in line with our own Bill of Rights), welcoming, and enforceable immigration policy.
   Yes, and if I could have that gift wrapped please?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Where Does Radical Islam Come From?

  One of the dilemmas for U.S. foreign policy is coming to grips with where, or from where, Islamic radicalism arises.  The President is stuck with the real world truth that there are a lot of Muslims in the world, and a lot of countries that are predominantly Muslim if not ruled by an Islamist government.There isn't much doubt on any government or military level that Islamic radicalism, extremists, Jihadists, etc. are at war with us.  When I say "us" I mean the United States and the secular West, as well as any government in nations where Islam holds popular control but is ruled by a government sympathetic or cooperative with the West.
    The rhetoric of war is tricky.  The Islamic radicals can use extreme language, and this language is powerful, incendiary, and very religious.  The West has to be very careful how it uses language so as not to insult or alienate the great Muslim multitude and those Muslim nations which we seek to use as a buffer against radicalism.  This careful use of language is politically calibrated to protect the interests of the West, but at the same time it fails to arouse the military fervor of its own people, and it leads to a certain ambiguity about who or what is trying to kill us.  It is almost as if we are fighting a committee that keeps coming up with recruits, arms, and money, but we don't want to use religion to explain it.
   This of course is often the problem with Islam, and with Muslims, and the attempts of the West and of Christianity as well to engage it in honest dialogue. Islamic communities will only allow discussion of their religion as long as there is no direct critique, no attack against their prophet or their book.  It doesn't matter what the laws of their country may say, the community is religiously Muslim and considers certain subjects to be off limits.  It enforces this barrier through physical intimidation, force and violence.  Even the rumour of criticism or disrespect can result in community turmoil and violent attacks in which the perpetrators feel justified to maim and slaughter even children.  The result is a muted conversation, side stepping the truth, and a growing acquiescence to the domination of Islam.
    I make a distinction of course between Christianity and the secular West because they are distinct.  Neither Christianity nor the secular West are at war with Muslims, both Muslims and Christians have a critique of secular materialism and its attendant immoralities, and both Christianity, Christians, the secular West, and moderate Muslims are being attacked by radical Islamists.
     Christianity is of course opposed to Islam, and sees it as false religion with a false prophet and a false claim to divine revelation.  Christianity is not at war with Muslims, though certain so called Christian entities (even the Roman Catholic Church) have in the past called for Crusades and Holy War.  Biblical Christianity knows no such thing as Holy War as part of its religion, at least not in any material sense.
    The answer as to where radical Islamists come from is frighteningly easy, they come from moderate Muslims, even lethargic or unengaged Muslims, who become radicalized.  What radicalizes them?  Islam does, from its Koran and from its Imams, as it has always done and as it always will.  As long as Islam is a weak religion, and that it is weak intellectually is proved because it cannot survive strong critique against the claims of its prophet or its book, nor especially of its practices, without the protection of the loud shouting down of its opponents or else killing them.
    All of the rhetoric of those seeking to assuage the Muslim masses by attempting to redefine Islam as a religion of peace just cause confusion and make the West look weak.  I can understand verbal restraint, being politic in how we define and explain circumstance, attempting not to offend or inflame situations.  I cannot excuse those who purposefully try to poke a stick in the eye of the Islamic world with videos and Koran burnings.  I can understand the anger and frustration considering the war we are in and which we have been fighting a long time but we need clear thinking and determined action, not drama.
    Radical Islam has conquered nations such as Iran, and the Iranians are a government determined to cause trouble.  Through them they help finance the Muslim brotherhood where and when it helps them, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Syrian government, and the radical Shiite elements of the Iraqi government.  This is the Islamic mob hysteria to stone a blasphemer morphed into a government attempting to develop nuclear weapons.  This is the religious fervor of not only dying for a religion, which is the real definition of martyr, but killing for it which has become the radical Islamic definition of the term.
    Both Sunni and Shiite fervency is flooding Gaza with weapons and rockets, in spite of Israel's blockade.  It is easy to sympathize with the people in Gaza, 1.7 million of them trapped in a urban twilight zone, but Hamas will only succeed in the death of the people of Gaza, not in the destruction of Israel.  Hamas knows Israel will remain unintimidated and so it has its apologists attempting to create the idea that Israel is America's creation and America's puppet and that the U.S. can end Israel's response and Israel's blockade.  Hamas, like radical Islam, is intransigent, and believes that violence and force will either intimidate its opponents or destroy them.
    So the question remains as to when the West will stop muting its own criticism of Islam, which it does freely against its own historic foundation of the Bible and Christian faith, and demand that Islam give up its ignorant and primitive use of violence as a means to give legitimacy to a religion that can't seem to stand up to a free and open discussion of its origins and ideas.  At the very least sooner or later those governments that are driven by radical Islam will have to be held accountable (read fought, conquered, destroyed)  by Western democracies for being the instigators and merchants of war. I don't think we have any other evidence except that Islam will continue to be the wellspring of hatred, violence, and war.  Even if it conquered the world it would consume itself with its competitive radicalism.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sex, Truth, and Erasing the Tapes.

Has anyone noticed how powerful sex is in our lives?  Now this article is not so much about sex but about its consequences, especially in the life of the church.  It begins however with the fundamental understanding that sex is powerful, that it is going on just about all the time, that it is what fills young minds and lingers long into old minds as well, it drives us into behavior and relationships, it creates family, complications, comfort and scandal.  Sex is also avoided, denied, hidden, and undiscussed when it should be addressed.  Sex is exploited, advertised, pimped, and drenches our media and entertainment.
    We are a society that, in my opinion, has diverging even mutually opposing ideas of sex and sexual behavior, sometimes in the same moment or the same situation.  Of course a lot of this is not our conscious fault. Sex is a biological given and a divine mandate.  "Multiply and replenish the earth" got the engine started and sin got in the transmission.  Sin is our fault, and though we might admit it is inevitable it nonetheless makes us accountable.  This notion of accountability is where we have differing views.
   Some makers and shapers of modern morality have decided that we cannot be accountable for sex, but as makers of modern technology we can protect ourselves from the physical and social consequences of it.  We have created birth control, we have created abortion, we have created no fault divorce, and no shame out of wedlock pregnancy.  Those makers and shapers of modern morality have sometimes meant well.  They noticed the power of sex, they noticed the biological drive of young people, and they doubted the power of the community and the church to curtail it.  Earlier in the twentieth century they noticed the failure of community and church in the individual exceptions, the notorious and scandalous moments of an unwanted  pregnancy, and the saddness of unwanted children in orphanages, foster homes, and single parent homes.
    If they were human they knew their own thought life, their own illicit moments, their own lust, their own feelings of desperation, guilt, and shame.  They didn't like what they saw as consequences for themselves, their children, or the cost to society.  Some of these folk who made decisions in earlier, not so distant past, generations, were in the church.  They felt the censor, the public ridicule and snickering over young people who got caught doing something they knew they themselves wanted to do, and might have done if they could have gotten away with it.
    I was part of a generation that had to read "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It seemed that the lesson they taught from that book was to condemn what secularists thought was puritancial morality and an unhealthy view of sex.  Since sex was so universal in a sexed race and so powerful and so appealing, and seemingly so unavoidable, moralities that tended to circumscribe or deny it must be harmful and could only lead to hypocrisy.
    So what do you do when you are a pastor and young girls in your congregation become pregnant?  This brings the role of pastor in its multiple responsibilites into a quandry.  Are we responsible to console, comfort, and encourage?  Are we there simply to dispense forgiveness?   Are we to be protectors of morality, virginity, and self-control?  Are we there to put shame on young women, or the young men if we can find the culprit?  Are we to be prophets of morality in an immoral culture, and how can we do that without seeming like we are legalistic, mean, stone throwing Pharisees?
    There are practical questions that evolve; do we throw a baby shower for an "illegitimate" birth?  Do we banish the word illegitimate so the young woman, her family, and the child can feel loved and accepted?  Do we handle this privately, quietly, so know one even knows, as they used to send young women "away" to cousins, or somewhere, while she was in "confinement?"
    A so-called youth pastor once came to me to ask if I could help him solve his problem.  "What is the problem, and what can I do to help you?"  I asked.  It turns out he had sex with a teen-ager in his youth group and wanted me to give him money so she could get an abortion.  That conversation did not end too well, and later I found out that the baby's life didn't end too well either.  He told me he has gotten his problem solved, "but not God's way."
    It is not just the young and unmarried that the pastor deals with, but the married and adulterous, the married and the pornograher, the sexually addicted, the sexual predator of children, the same sex attracted.  No one prepared me for this much sexual trouble while I was in seminary.  Of couse I myself am as pure as the driven snow and have never had a lustful or sexual thought in my life, never lusted in my heart after a woman who wasn't my wife, never was attracted to porn, never flirted with anyone but my wife.  Stand back before this computer is struck by lightening. Guilty, guilty, guilty, and as I struggle with myself I realize my calling won't let me back away from what seems a tsunami of human frailty.
    Our society of course takes the wrong lessons from the Gospel.  They love the story of the woman caught in adultery and the punch line of "let him who is without sin cast the first stone."  They seem to forget the brutal, no compromise morality of Jesus saying, "go and sin no more."  How could he do that, doesn't he know how normal and unpreventable sex and romance are?  Why doesn't Jesus go after the man and rebuke him too, or are only women the causes of sex?  So the world settles for the idea that we can't stop sinning, so don't start throwing stones.
    It is the pastor's misson to deal with his own sexuality first.  To admit his own needs and weakness, to be a repenter, to be a depender on the grace of God for his own sexual purity, to be constantly in touch with his own need of cleansing at the cross and a humble receiver of it.  To never be self-righteous about the call to sexual purity or legalitic.  It is also his mission to be uncompromising about the standards of Scripture, to call all people (including himself) to sexual purity, chastity, and faithfulness in marrirage.  It is his job to not allow public evidence of sexual sin to go undealt with in a public manner.  Discipline should be as private as the sin, but without church discipline we simply are saying "amen" to the morality of the culture.
    It is the pastor's job to help his church leadership deal with sexual sin in a loving, healing, restorative, yet morally uncomproming way.  If this means a young pregnant woman must come before the Elders, and the young man who sinned as well, and confess and repent, then it must be done.  If it means the Elders must pronounce forgiveness to them, it must be done. At the baptism of the infant, or the wedding of a prenant woman, the pastor announces that confession and repentance, and therby demands no gossip and no slander, but now only support and inclusion, it must be done.  It is only repentance at the foot of the cross that effectively erases the never ending playing of the guilt tape in our minds.
    Americans are averse to public shame, but the reality is that guilt and shame already happened, and the gossip will spread unless the boil is pricked.  Telling the truth dispells the hidden, dirty story, and we all sympathize with the weakness, and we forgive those who like ourselves mess up, and we protect those yet to come with cautionary tales.  We don't endorse evil by our silence, we don't surrender to biological inevitability, whether normal or  perverted (as is so much in a society of moral abandonment).  We do not let our own failures and temptations disqualify, blackmail, or silence us from telling the truth, only letting it help us tell the truth with sympathy, love, and kindness.
    The prevelant myth was (and is) that sex could not be stopped but the consequences could be avoided with technology and new laws.  That it was a myth is proven by the avalanche of unwanted pregnancies, millions of abortions, millions of unfathered children, millions of divorced women, and their suffering in poverty since the introduction of such strategies.  It was always a myth, and it turns out the Bible's take on it is reality and truth.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hey, Show A Little Respect to the Godfather.

    Have you seen the Godfather movies?  Did you catch the idea that showing respect was highly valued by the Mafia?  That is of course until they murder you, but it is the idea of getting murdered that helps one to focus on showing some respect.  We have no such enforced system of respect in the church, the denomination, and it seems we are sometimes scarce on the practice too.

    I am speaking here of the respect between church leaders.  One of the most valuable things I have learned from being mentored by African American church leaders is showing respect.  I learned it again in Africa where Elders, the Wazee, are considered worthy of respect.  I learned it, and had it enforced, when I became an officer in the U.S. Army.  I also grew up in Newark, NJ so I fully understood the Godfather movies.

    I am a Presbyterian Teaching Elder.  I was one of the longest serving pastors in my Presbytery.  I have some experience in urban church planting, cross cultural ministry, and mercy ministry to the poor.  I noticed when younger pastors came into the Presbytery and took no notice of me, or didn't visit me, or didn't consult with me about mutual concerns.  I'm not saying I was all bent out of shape about it, didn't say I was sending anybody in limos to pick them up, I'm just saying I noticed.

    Recently I spoke with a pastor who has a considerable ministry among Hispanics.  He felt the disrespect when the denomination had a meeting about Hispanics, for Hispanics, but didn't have anyone translate things into Spanish.  He felt it because he had carried some pastors to the meeting, most of whom couldn't speak English.

    I remember when the denomination had a meeting about cross cultural ministry and simply sent me an invitation to the meeting.  No one asked me about my view of the meeting, about who was going to speak.  They didn't have to do that, but it would have shown some respect if they had, at least given some indication that they (the agency involved) had noticed that this was my life's work.  I'm just saying that I might have known something about the subject, and it sure would have felt like they had an understanding of the "political love" that is needed to make progress in a community.  For those whose community is only their movement or network, I am telling  you that you need to realize our community is larger than you know.

    Part of white culture is to be self-deprecating and self-disdainful.  We of course spiritualize it and say we are seeking God's glory.  That is fine when you practice it for yourself, but to deny respect to those who have earned it is not just a breach of etiquette but an insult.  We should seek God's glory, and we shouldn't seek our own glory, but we certainly should show respect to one another and recognize the value of other people's work.

    By the way, this isn't about me, I'm just using my personal examples to make a point.  In a day when we have more and more "networks" and multi-site church movements and denominational agencies who plan agendas we have to be careful we don't roll over people who have been doing the spade work of ministry, have spent the years in a place, know the players and where the bodies are buried (so to speak) because we think we have a new and fresh way to get results fast.  Of course these results are for Jesus and the Kingdom of God, so we feel we don't have to be too careful around the old guard who haven't been seen to make much progress before we arrived.

    I think some of this is simply white culture (which most of us white folk don't know we have because we think it is "normal").  Some of it is youthful and movement arrogance.  Some of it is just pure ignorance of knowing how to show what I call "political love."  The reader might be in favor of love, but not the word  political.  OK, why don't we refer to it as "wisdom."   One never knows when the bridges one has burned may be needed, one doesn't always know that the friends they could have had got tired of being had, and tired of being overlooked.  It is amazing how suddenly one might need friends in Presbytery, or General Assembly, or at some denominational agency, or even help after a disaster has swept through your town.

    Some may find this amusing coming from me.  If you know my history you will know I haven't suffered fools gladly, haven't believed in continuing things the same way we have always done them, and have basically advocated burning systems and things down if it meant we could pursue the Kingdom and the Commission of Jesus faster.  So I must come with some repentance (alright, a lot of repentance) and ask for forgiveness where and when I have been impulsive and failed to respect my elders and those in leadership.  I realize how much I am involved in networks, multi-site church planting, and denominational agencies.  Please forgive me where I have been heavy handed and clumsy, too blunt, not careful to love as deeply and fully as I should.

    When I was getting started in the city where I worked I consciously kept a low profile.  I didn't want my name in the papers, didn't want to draw attention to what I was doing in the black community.  I was not the "white Moses."  I know that envy, covetousness, and jealous competition spring very quickly among preachers and leaders.  I have learned this in some painful ways.  I had to earn the right to be respected, and I earned that right by showing respect.

    With that awareness of myself let me shout out a warning to those who think their new helicopter church planting method, their mega church ideas, their denominational agency efficiency gives them the right to step on and over those who are already in the fight, in fact may have suffered much, but don't have the same publicity machine.  You and I need to learn to show respect.  It is not too hard and it pays off big dividends.  People actually like me better when they realize I am not such an arrogant....kind of person. Well, maybe I am, but I don't want to be, I really do want to be more like Jesus.  It is never just the goal, but the means to the goal has to have the same nature as the goal.  If love is where we are going, then love is how we get there.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Presents New Opportunities and Exposes Our Usual Practice.

When disaster strikes pastors are key players in their communities.  Well, maybe we should say, "they could be."  I would like to say, "they, or you, should be!"  Many pastors like to think of themselves as leaders in the "community."  Most times they are only leaders in their own congregations, and unfortunately many are not very good at it.  I believe the Barna Group did a survey and found out that about 70% of pastors didn't want to be leaders.  They wanted to preach, teach, study, write, but not lead.
    When I first read that statistic I was saddened by it, but not too surprised.  In some ways we don't want our pastors leading too much, we prefer they that be kind, sweet, holy people who only lead by suggestion.  If they get on their high horse of leadership they might start telling us how to live, or calling us out that we ain't living right, or become political and the next thing  you know they will be telling us how to vote.
    When disaster strikes people in a community might assume their local church, even if they don't go to it, would lend a hand, would be a sanctuary, would mobilize to help at least their own people.  The reality is that the way pastors lead normally will result in them responding pretty much the same way when disaster strikes.  What I mean by that is that pastors will do little or nothing to be of practical help, and most likely won't be much spiritual help either.
    Now, one good thing about a disaster is that it does give pastors a chance to change, a chance to step up and become the leader their church has always needed them to be.  Some of them have taken that responsibility to heart, some of them have become different in the way they do ministry.
    I am speaking of the propensity of pastors to stay in their studies, to prepare sermons, hopefully they pray, but not to exercise leadership by casting vision to their people to learn how to reach out to their neighbors through what the Bible calls, "good works."  When the Apostles told Paul to "remember the poor" I don't think it was because he was having memory problems. I think they wanted him to do something about the poor.  So when Paul planted churches there he was spelling out to the new pastor the need for the office of Deacon, the qualifications for it, the need to take care of widows, the need to do good to all men but especially to the household of faith.  Paul even wrote about in his epistles and helped set up a system of subsidizing widows who couldn't provide for their own needs or had no families to help them.
    When we develop a practical plan of helping our neighbors in their physical needs, in the name of Christ and with the accompanying Word of God to share the Gospel with them many wonderful things take place.  Not least among them is what it does for our own church members and our children.  Personally I think one of the greatest things that happens in a church that lives out justice, especially racial justice and accompanies that with ministries of economic mercy and development is that it gives our children an identity of religious integrity.  Our kids go to college, go away to other communities, and they hear someone bashing the Church because it is hypocritical and is segregated and doesn't care for the poor.  Children from churches that practice Biblical mercy and justice speak back to such slander and say, "I don't know what you are talking about, all our church did was help the poor and stand for justice, we have nothing to be ashamed about."
    Pastors need to learn how to lead in their communities in the daily need for mercy, but especially when disaster comes.  I am proud of the Presbyterian Church in America for its disaster response ministry, and this is true for both MNA and MTW, our mission organizations.  The PCA responds, and shares its wealth, and its people move to help those in trouble and they sacrifice to do it.  However, not all our churches, nor do all our pastors participate.  Usually they have to wait to get the message when the storm falls on them and the community comes and asks for food, shelter, support of some kind.  Then they wonder what they can do because they haven't taken the time to learn it when things would have been easier.
    Here are some things you can do: go out and walk the neighborhood and see what is affecting them.  Go up to those who have trouble and ask them to tell you their story.  Offer to pray for them.  Take notes on what they need.  Go back to the church and tell them what the needs are, ask for ideas and suggestions, pray over it.  Go to local government and institutions and speak up for the community about what is needed.  Ask your Presbytery or regional group what resources they can give you to help.  Call the denominational office and ask for their help.  You will be amazed how welcome your presence will be on almost every level if you are there to offer a prayer, give a word of encouragement.  You will be amazed at how respected your congregation will be if they sponsor a team to come in and clean out someone's flooded house, or give a stipend to someone who couldn't work for weeks or a month.
    Some pastors feel they can't do anything because they think they have no resources.  Are you kidding, don't you believe in God, do you think he is broke?  You have not because you ask not; neither from God nor from your brothers and sisters.  I think it is a shame to the name of Jesus that in times of disaster a pastor says to those who ask for help, or to his own people who ask what can they do, "we don't do that kind of thing, we are a spiritual ministry."
    I am proud of those pastors who are out visiting their neighbors, coordinating with other local leaders, calling on the denomination and marshaling resources so they can deliver some help.  May God bless them and sustain them, especially as the burden of need falls on them and they hurt for those around them.  They are not abandoning their spiritual ministry but rather filling their physical ministry with a spiritual authenticity.  They are doing it in the name of Jesus and they are doing it at the right time, and they are ready to do it because they have trained themselves to do it by the practice of normal, usual, and daily acts of compassion and mercy. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

We Need To Put Love to Work!

 I had an interesting juxtaposition of events recently.  I was at a conference put on by the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation and the theme was Guilt & Shame.  I was also at a Reformation Day service put on by some of the churches of my Presbytery (Tennessee Valley).
    One of the worst things that can happen to you is to be asked to give a testimony of grace at a Guilt & Shame conference.  Anyone looking at your name on the schedule should know immediately that somewhere you have royally messed up.  Yes, I was the one giving such a testimony.  The only good thing, well the beginning actually of many good things, is that your sins are no longer hidden.  Let me just take a moment to shout a little bit about the cross, the mighty cross, the blessed blood of Jesus, for the expiation of sin, for being dressed in the righteousness of Christ. OK, thanks for the moment, now back to my subject.
    The reason I connect the two events, one the guilt & shame conference and a Presbytery gathering, is that I realize how difficult it really is for Teaching Elders to live out our ideal of accountability.  I am speaking of the dynamic Teaching Elders experience as they seek to stay faithful to Jesus and their vows, primarily of holiness, and the dogged persistence of the sins that so easily entangle them.  It is difficult because by conscience we are to be sensitive to our own sins, and not just condemn those in others.  In doing so we also are faced with the reality that the Presbyterian system is a system of courts in which discipline is exercised, or is supposed to be.
    With all this current Gospel celebration going on, by which I mean constantly using the word Gospel in our sermons, and proclaiming that this now means we can be transparent and vulnerable with each other, I am wondering if we really trust each other in our Presbyteries to own up to our sins?  Unfortunately I have been at several Presbytery trials, sometimes public confessions of sin, and seen discipline exercised where brothers have been stripped of their ministerial credentials, sat down from their pulpits.  It was not unfortunate that the Presbytery was acting, only that it had to act.  I don't think I have ever been at one where the guilty party wasn't truly guilty, and the Presbytery wasn't earnestly trying to help the individuals concerned.  Nevertheless, it was painful to experience, and there was a certain amount of godly fear involved, as in "there but for the grace of God go I."
    I have been close to some who were disciplined, I have been close to some who should have been disciplined, I have even been a prosecutor at one of those trials.  Sometimes I have heard from such individuals that they would rather step down, and they did, without ever owning up publicly to their sin because the experience of a Presbytery trial was something they could not face.  Whether that was because of the humiliation, or because they felt Presbytery was too harsh, or that they could not trust the brothers with the care of their soul I do not know.
    That is of course part of the problem.  Presbyteries are not simply charged with caring for the souls of Presbyters, they are also charged with protecting the name of Jesus and the purity of the Church.  It is what makes the position of Pastor (Teaching Elders for those PCA purists) so special and so precarious.
    One of the issues in the dynamic of Pastors being accountable is the relationship they have first with their own Sessions.  This can be a wonderful relationship, or it can be one of conflict and discord.  My realization is that there is a danger when our Ruling Elders love us too much, and forgive our sins too readily, because they don't want to lose us.  Yet, it is important I think for a Presbytery to not dissolve that relationship, or interfere in it, too quickly.  I am saying that some Pastors can be salvaged and not simply booted out.  If they have a loving but strong Session I think Pastors can be rehabilitated and wonderfully continued in ministry.
    I also think it is so important that Presbyteries work on building trust between the brothers.  Our system almost seems to take pleasure in not trusting anyone.  We have committees to check on committees.  We teach and believe in our own total depravity.  Yet, if we don't trust each other with our souls, and are too careful about our jobs (this is what we do and how we pay our bills and feed our families and experience esteem and status) then we will hold on to our secret sins and not open up so we can get help.  Our system cannot be reduced to a system of "gotcha."   We have to put love to work.  I was so happy to be at that Reformation service because I happen to like the guys in my Presbytery.  Some of them scare me to death because I am not as holy as they are, as theologically astute, or as strict in the BOCO, but I believe I love them, and I think they love me.  I don't like having sins to confess, but I would be dead if that were the case. I do like having the joy of forgiveness, and brothers who understand the struggle.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


    I am thankful that I am writing this without being in the circumstance of grieving, or anger, in having just lost someone to murder.  I am writing as an observer of a fairly consistent dynamic within our American culture.  I am speaking about our propensity toward killing each other.
   I have written previously, with anger, about the killing of our inner city young people, especially our young men.  Some of my anger has been about the relative silence on this subject by national leaders, even well known civil rights leaders, who become incensed  when they see racial injustice or police brutality. While agreeing that we should always be angry about injustice I don't like us to be silent about what is proportionately much worse than, what is today, relatively isolated incidents of racial killing.
    I would like us to have some sustained anger over what is happening way too frequently in our country.  It is difficult to go very long in time without seeing another story in the news about a domestic or employment related killing.  These killings are often multiple killings or shootings, and the perpetrator often kills himself or commits "suicide by cop."  We are a nation of blood, more than we like to admit, and it seems to be everywhere around us.  Yes, there are certain neighborhoods that don't have nightly drive by shootings, thank God some of those still exist.  True normalcy would be an answer to David's prayer in Psalm 144:14, "...that there be no cry of distress in our streets."  Yet there is no neighborhood exempt from murder because it happens wherever people live or work together.
    Often the scenario is a woman who has recently separated or divorced from her boyfriend or husband respectively.  We seem to have a substantial amount of men in our society who cannot handle the fact of their woman leaving them, and they threaten that if they are left they will kill the woman, her (or their) children, her parents, and anyone who gets in the way.  How does our society create such men?  What is the culture, the psychology, the spiritual bankruptcy that fosters such proclivity?
    It is interesting to me that such situations often happen when an "order of restraint," injunctions or some kind of legal restraining order has been issued.  Facing jail, even the presence of police, does not seem to prevent angry males from stalking and hunting down the female they feel has destroyed their life.  This is "maleness" off the chain, where a man will let nothing stop him to accomplish his mission.
    This is also a glimpse into the weakness of men, the profound depth of feeling worthless, powerless, and emotionally emasculated.  Men cannot abide it and they will reduce themselves to their lowest common denominator, which is to be physical and to take physical action.  This kind of thing happens on the job when employers and supervisors and those who seem to have control over a worker, usually male, face that angry male worker (now holding a gun) who will not endure the insult to his life being dominated, and in his mind destroyed, by others.
    Ego weakness in our society is a prevalent disease.  In the ghettos it is quick offense at being dissed, sometimes territorial or group competition; juvenile idiocy dressed up as being tough.  In the suburbs it is more hidden behind the blank looks of men who marry, work, and feel like they are nothing in a world of women who have minds of their own or employers who decide to call them extraneous.
    Obviously having lethal means translates into more lethality.  Without so many guns we wouldn't have so many murders or suicides.  I love guns; love holding them, love firing them.  There is something powerful about holding one and having one.  I know they are dangerous.  I would kind of like people to think of me that way, that I have the potential to be dangerous.  I'm not a bad shot either.  I love cowboy movies, I love action movies, I even love the sort of vigilante revenge movies where the abused guy finally comes out the winner in the end.  I am such an American.  None of that makes, or can make me, manly.
    This is the problem, and unless we deal with it we will continue to have a scourge of quiet, strange, unknown individuals who one day become infamous because they kill everyone that at one time they said they loved, or knew, or worked with.  We keep being surprised by such things when we ought to start dealing with some of the sources of the problem.
    I don't think the problem is simply trying to outlaw guns, and if anyone wants to rid the country of all the illegal guns and keep criminals from having them, or the clinically insane from buying them, I will be thrilled and supportive.  I don't even care if you want to register my guns.  The government knows I own a car, and I can kill you with that too.
      I don't think the problem is strong women.  Women who can out talk men, or who have more education than men, or who seem sometimes to get away with all kinds of things because our society still thinks of them as the victim even when they can be the evil engine of things gone wrong in a relationship, family, or at the office.
    I don't think the answer is homosexuality for those who can't figure out their sexual identity, or need love but are terribly intimidated by the very difficult obstacle of figuring out how to live with someone of the opposite sex.
    I do think the answer is very traditional, and in absence of that it must be religious.  I divide those things because I do think God Almighty gave the world a lot of common grace when he established the family.  This is a fairly consistent picture (though with plenty of failed men in history to make one think those examples give the lie to my opinion) of traditional cultures and the historical family.  Men who work, who take a wife and are shown respect by that wife, who raise children and teach them to respect their parents.  There, that is pretty much it.  Oh, I know we want to add affection and love, building up self esteem.  Yes, those would be great additions if they didn't already come with the package, but historically it usually did.  It is a sad commentary that some think a patriarchal culture oppressed women, usually inferred by someone's own personal experience, but traditional families didn't create so many murderous boys.
    That atmosphere usually produced boys who could reduplicate what they had grown up in.  Muslim cultures do the same thing except where those that particularly oppress their women and girls and keep them ignorant.  Those cultures develop masses of insecure men, and those men murder and kill their wives, daughters, and infidels.
    Cultures do not stay consistent.  Cultures often suffer from cultural disintegration and both the cause and effect of that is family disintegration.  One can redefine the word family to keep up some form of political politeness, but as families fail so do neighborhoods, societies and nations.
    I mentioned religion, and as I am a Christian I know that Jesus redeems and makes new what was once broken and perverted.  God can make men men again, and if ever that was needed in America it is today, when weak men go on killing sprees to somehow prove to themselves they are still powerful.  They are in fact broken men who can still take action, like in horror movies where the hand has been cut off but it still is chasing you down. They are in fact not real men, not worthy of the name, not men who know love and how to give it.  Males who instead have a consistent assurance, with the confidence that even if their world falls apart they are rooted by their heritage and have hope in their future.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I Would Help You But We Haven't Built Our Program Yet

  Maybe you have read, "When Helping Hurts" or "Toxic Charity"?   I certainly hope you read those very helpful books with the desire to be merciful.  I hope you have not read them either looking for excuses not to help, or coming away from them deciding not to help those in need.
    When all these good books have done been read we are still left with the Book that trumps them all and that of course is the Bible.  The reader might wonder why I would think you could read the books mentioned and not be willing to be merciful.  The problem lies not in their intent or the desire of their authors, but the confusion that may result when we think of what is good, better, and best when it comes to mercy.  The trouble may be in attempting to do things perfectly so as to delay doing anything at all.
    My hope is that those who practice mercy in more than occasional moments, those that are seeking to build a Deacon's strategy or an organized mercy program will remember mercy while they organize mercy.
I know that you may read or hear, "it would be better..." and no doubt if you have the time, resources, training, intelligence or whatever you need to build a program or ministry that helps people be self sufficient, move from dependence to independence, etc. it will in the long run be better for the folks you try to help.  The only problem of course is that the person who needs help might starve by then, or freeze to death, or fail to get the medication they need for their diabetes.
    One of the problems those of us who want to effectively help poor people over the long haul have seen is that well meaning but not well thought out programs have often fostered dependency, and that often leads to cynicism in both the giver and the receiver.  We want people to aspire to something better for themselves, we want them to move from a culture of survival to a culture of life and stability.  We want their value system to change so that they will become producers, owners, builders, makers, and ultimately generous people who share with others in need.
    While learning, thinking, and struggling to build such ministries and programs people can still overwhelm us with their immediate needs.  Some of those needs are emergencies, some are real, some are legitimate, even life threatening issues.  It is in this very space that Deacons and mercy planners have to build a strategy of response and not hide behind a community development strategy that only works for the long term.  Let me put it bluntly, if you let children go hungry then you are not being merciful but mean.
    This is the place of ministry that I advocate for local churches, while those same local churches build deeper and wider strategies of mercy that leads to development.  Some of those strategies are non-profits, 501(c)3 organizations, Individual Development Account programs, food cooperatives, savings schemes, job training, housing ministries, etc.
    This emergency response is tough because it always happens on someone else's timetable, just when it seems most inconvenient for ourselves.  If we think ahead we might actually be ahead by planning emergency response before it hits us.  This is true for Disaster Response as well as for local church members and members of our communities that need someone to appeal to for help when in immediate, sudden, or emergency need.
    Now if someone has an emergency every month, say about the end of month when they have run out of food, and you keep responding like it is an emergency then you are hurting yourself and them.  Pretty soon after meeting their real or first emergency you need a budget conference, then you might need to give some life counseling.  Finally you need to build a long term strategy for them so you don't become the "candy man" and they begin to get hardened to using you as their life preserver, and you begin to resent them.
    I confess that I think many of us are lazy, but maybe I am just projecting my problems onto others.  At the same time we Christians often have sensitive hearts and want to help people, especially in those moments when we feel self righteous about those other Christians who don't help anyone (OK, I'm getting a little sarcastic), but we have got to face some hard facts about ourselves, the reality of our busy lives, and the real needs of poor folk.  I want us (not just you but myself as well) to be able to move on a dime, to respond quickly and wisely, and to have the resources ready to make that move and make that response without permanently screwing the people up we are trying to help.
    It takes some planning and foresight to make that happen while our laziness resists our getting that done.  In addition our sensitive hearts will get us into a trap of guilt and bad response.  This wouldn't matter if we had the option of just building programs that did everything just the right way for poor people.  My point here is that you will not always have time for that luxury, and you don't have permission from God to close your ears to the cry of the poor either.  When people need mercy they need mercy, not your educated opinion that what is best for them in the long run is a program that hasn't been built yet.  Do both, pray, think about what you are doing, work on doing it better, and remember to be merciful in the right way at the moment of need.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Is The Wife Called Too?

    Most of our urban church planters are married.  This doesn't have to be so but most pastors do tend to get married before they begin their pastoral ministry.  Each family is different and each context is different but many of the dynamics are the same in inner city church planting and ministry.
    It is not surprising that some of our families live in dangerous neighborhoods.  It is not surprising that some of their homes and cars are broken into and they experience being robbed.  It is not surprising that the public schools where they raise their children are usually at risk schools or maybe we should just say, terrible schools.  It is not surprising that their children are at risk of getting into fights, or getting mugged or robbed, while playing right in front of the house.
    There are other dynamics among our church planters as well.  Some of them are not paid very much, or certainly not enough.  Some of them don't see a lot of fast growing fruit as they deal with some very dysfunctional individuals and families.  Some of them suffer from a support system that is not always that supportive, they may give money but they constantly criticize that more isn't being accomplished.  Some of them suffer from self doubt, some of them suffer from family problems that could occur anywhere, but in this context those problems can be crippling.
    What happens when they have a handicapped child, or that handicap is emotional or mental?   What happens when the wife is depressed, or the planter struggles with depression?  What happens when the wife questions her calling, the planters calling, and the call to this kind of ministry?
    In the assessment of church planters the wife is also questioned as to her sense of call, her commitment and agreement with the call of her husband.  Now, one can theorize that wives are not the one called, just the husband.  She just needs to be a good wife and mother and take care of her family, some might think.  Not in the inner city, not on the mission field.  Maybe in a comfortable middle class and stable church setting a wife can feel the luxury of her own career, her own life apart from the church, but not in the inner city.  There planters are called not just to a job but to a context.
    This is not to say that wives can't have their own job or career; that is a family decision  Whether the wife works in addition to the work of her home she is called to be with her husband in a common mission in a common context, and that context is all defining.  Some can try to live outside their area of mission, that will make things tougher and sometimes will make it impossible.  Some can try to live as if they are in a bubble, like some missionaries do overseas, and stay in a compound and never expose themselves to the life of the community they are called to reach.  This is both in-genuine and hypocritical and the people where you live can see your lack of faith and your lack of love for them.
    How can we preach to the poor to have faith in their context if we never enter it, how can we preach trust in the Sovereignty of God in a violent community if we refuse to engage it?  One might say I am asking a lot.  To the contrary, I am asking the impossible.  I am asking parents to go against all of their own intuitive responses to danger and threat, which is to protect our children and to shelter them and give them all we think is the best.
    In cross cultural churches that pursue the poor we often see parents make this life style choice at different points, usually when a child complains about the Sunday School, youth group, or is attracted to more middle class youth groups in other churches.  We see parents abandon their altruistic ideals that they had when they didn't have kids.   This makes perfect sense, but it doesn't help the inner city, and it doesn't fulfill the mission of those called to it, and in fact it discourages the rest of us who stay.
    My feeling is that wives of church planters and missionaries are called just like their husbands, they need to be commissioned like their husbands, and they certainly need to be prayed for along with their husbands and children.  They are partners in the ministry and their intuitive feel for relationships, their compassion, their insights, even their anger at what is wrong is helpful to their men and to the church they are seeking to plant and grow.
    Is the Gospel call to the unreached, the poor, the dangerous, the antagonistic only to single people?  If the call comes to those who are married everyone in the family will suffer for it.  I use the word with respect, because we are called to add to the sufferings of Christ, we are in fact joined to them as we are joined to Him.  Is it fair to bring our children along in such bad circumstances, to expose them to violence, racism, poverty, fear, etc.?   No, it is not fair, only right and obedient.  And in a certain respect, the only safe thing to do when God calls you.  Is God weak, has he forgotten his children, is he unable to provide and protect?   He is our rock, our strong tower, and "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty." (Psalm 91:1)   I remember a certain woman named Elizabeth Elliot who took her young daughter and lived among the tribe that killed her husband.  Wow, talk about context.
    Each family has to make wise and prudent decisions on schooling their children, on putting bars on their windows and alarm systems, on knowing who they can't trust in their house.  Everyone in a war zone learns "street sense" or you don't last long, everyone suffers some trauma, and many will exhibit some forms of PTSD.  It comes with the territory, and that comes with the call.   So, ladies especially, if God called you to the man, and if God has called you to a place, be there!  Be there in the confidence that Jesus never takes us anywhere that he isn't still in control of the storms that rage all around us.  When you got in the boat with Jesus it should not have been the boat that gave you confidence, nor in the placid waters of the moment but in the Master of water, and earth, and sky who sails with you.