Wednesday, July 30, 2014


   I love stories of courage, of sacrificial bravery, of someone knowing they are going up against terrible odds and being willing to stand in the gap at the crucial moment, no matter what it costs them.  I have always wanted to have that potential, that readiness, and to be that kind of person.  I find myself crying at patriotic songs and movies where the hero, especially historical figures, take a valiant and often fatal stand against evil and for a righteous cause.

    When I was in high school we had to study Shakespeare's play Macbeth.  I wrote one of my first poems in response to it and I can barely remember it but one line I think I can recreate, "A man would rather the seas incarnadine than find something inside himself to struggle with."  I was really taken by the word "incarnadine."  To make bloody the ocean with guilt was the idea I was working off of and I used it to ponder the issue of how we would much rather fight outward battles, destroy those whom we consider to be enemies, rather than to fight inside ourselves against our own faults and sins.

    I think "moral courage" starts with the quest for individual integrity, and it continues in the quest for social and moral justice.  For some it has been easier to fight the social and political battle while compromising in their own character, maybe it would be more accurate to say "most" rather than "some," maybe it would be reality to admit to "all."

   The quest for moral courage is fraught with the scandal of hypocrisy along the way.  It attacks from two directions.  Those who become heroes against social and moral injustice are often found out to have clay feet while those who are paragons of moral rectitude, especially in religious circles, are often silent in the day of injustice and say and do nothing to stop it.  The religious moralists are quick to point out the moral hypocrisy of a social justice advocate who has been caught in sexual misbehavior, but often seem to have no social moral conscience.  We can be self-righteous in either or both arenas; that of our own personal morality and that in the cause of social justice and morality.

    Since the spiritual reality is that none of us is perfect before God, (not perfect in our thinking, not perfect in our performance, and not perfect in our desires,) honesty forces us to admit all heroes have faults.  Not all faults result in tragedy so we cannot call all our weaknesses "tragic faults."  It seems to me that one of the most tragic of faults is to consider moral perfection essential before we can consider someone a hero in the area of social morality, and another tragic fault is to consider social morality a fight not essential to pursue

    What I just said was that if you seek holiness without also pursuing love for your neighbor, which is what social morality and justice are built upon, then you have a "tragic fault" and you are a hypocrite.  I speak here of loving your neighbor in the sense of caring for the oppressed, broken, and abandoned as well as that of feeling warm about fellow church members, and forgiving the person next door who lets his dog out too often, doesn't cut his lawn, or plays his music too loud.

    I don't like my own hypocrisy, my own ability to allow or lightly consider my own spiritual tendencies of being proud, angry, lustful, resentful, ambitious, jealous, envious, hateful, etc. to continue without crying out to God for the grace of repentance.  I hate my sin, and I only wish I hated it more, and please God kill these sins in me.  Yet, may God also kill the inertia when good needs to be done and I do nothing, because that  is as nasty a sin as the rest of it.

    We, that is, the whole world, needs both kinds of heroes who are heroic in both arenas.  We need men and women of integrity, people who keep their marriage vows, who keep their word, who are honest in their financial and legal dealings, who don't use other folks for their own gain.  We need people we can trust.  We also need people who we trust to do good in the world and stand up for what is right.

   Right now there are medical staff and volunteers treating patients with Ebola and there is a pretty good chance they will catch it even as they try to help the few who have it to survive, or at least die in dignity.  This disease is scarier than HIV/AIDS ever has been.  Some of these health care workers have already died.  Right now there are people trying to help those caught in the Hamas versus Israel war, and they may or might not have a political commitment to either side, but they are under the bombs and missiles while they try to relocate refugees, feed those without food, heal the wounded, and speak out against violence and persecution.  This is true of some in Syria, in Iraq, in Nigeria, and in Ukraine.

    There are smaller arenas of justice, which nevertheless become significant for institutions and communities.  Will a person hire a minority when it is so convenient not to do so, will an institution create a program for diversity, will a business or municipality invest in a poor community when they could make faster money somewhere else or satisfy the demands of the affluent for better political return?  Will they make the harder choice for justice sake?  Will some leader step out of their ideological tribe and speak truth in spite of political cost to help righteousness prevail?

    All of these people also have temptations, internal conflicts within their souls and personalities, and sometimes abandon the easy and pleasurable option for the harder and holier choice; heroism in two ways in the same person.  I think we need that two way heroism, in all of us, and I think we need God's grace for us to be able do either one; but maybe amazing grace to do it in both directions at the same time.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


    I wish preachers were more like Peyton Manning.  What, you mean lose a Super Bowl?   No, I mean learn from your mistakes.   One of the things that impresses me about Peyton Manning is how he studies his job, and  how he has learned from his mistakes.  I have watched him as a Tennessee Vols fan since he was at UT, and I have seen him make mistakes.  We are not very forgiving of mistakes by UT quarterbacks in Tennessee.  Sarcastic and caustic comments start getting posted in very odd places.

   Yet, one of the things that I think has propelled Mr. Manning beyond many of his contemporaries is his refusal to let his mistakes be lost to him as a resource.  In an age of television with special effects we don't seem to teach our people very well that most of life is not perfect, that we aren't all born with a super arm, super legs, gifted and spontaneous moves.  We want to be stars that make our effort look easy, but not as if we had to study, to work at something, to improve even while a whole lot of the world watched us fail a time or two.

    Preachers are in public usually every week, in a pulpit, proclaiming the Word of God (at least we hope so.)   Several things combine to prevent them from revealing their inadequacies.  One is that they are preaching God's Word and they stand for God to deliver his will and pronouncements to the rest of us.  This gives them an authority most believers need and want.  To think that the preacher's knowledge is faulty, his delivery and techniques distracting, that his applications are like mis-thrown passes in football deprives us of the mystery and majesty of hearing from God.

    It would be terrible if a preacher got up one Sunday and apologized for how badly he interpreted the Scripture the previous Sunday, or that he was completely in error in understanding the text, or that he had failed to study or practice adequately so he could hold our attention and actually communicate with us.  Terrible, but maybe really great too.  We sure don't want someone to be inept and stumbling every week, but honesty might be really life changing for the whole congregation.

    The second thing that prevents preachers from being up front about their own inadequacy is their ego and pride.  Most preachers I know are competitive.  Sometimes it is a competition for the respect of their people, sometimes a competition against every other preacher in the world so they can give a respectful answer when someone asks, 'how big is your church?"  Sometimes that pride is mixed with the fear of men and the fear of failing.

    Maybe a third reason that preachers don't own up to the fact they make mistakes, or that they need to learn from them, is the lack of forgiveness of their people.  Some congregations want perfection, so they delude themselves that they have it when they get a gifted preacher.

    So here is just a little advice to preachers.  Make it a discipline of your calling to realize what mistakes you are actually making.  Most preachers have to throw off depression and despair pretty quickly after a sermon that seems to have fallen into the carpet or else they can't function very well.  Yet, if you allow yourself no reflection, and no request for loving and helpful criticism, no inquiry into what might have gone wrong then you stop learning and  you don't getter better at your craft.

    Most preachers have critics, and so they develop skills at how to interpret them and quite often this is bad for the preacher since he sometimes dismisses critics as simply personal opponents, or political factions, or servants of the Devil.  Every once in while our crtitics have it exactly right, even if they don't have the wisdom or grace to say it so we might graciously receive it.

    Sometimes preachers are afraid that if they admit to their mistakes their critics will use it against them and move to get rid of them.  Certainly my admissions have been used by those who I realized were my opponents in the congregation.  Thankfully I had an overwhelmingly supportive group of Elders and congregation, but more importantly I knew God has always had my back in trying to be transparent.

    So if people are telling you that you preach too long, listen!  If they say you are boring, listen!  If they say they are not "being fed," listen!  If they say they feel they are being beaten down with guilt, listen!  If they say they can't understand you, that you are preaching over their heads, listen!  If they say you sound angry, or that you seem to be attacking someone, listen!

   I am not saying they are correct or right in their evaluation; often people aren't quite sure what is bothering them about your performance and they sometimes say anything they can think of to make a noise of complaint.  Sometimes they are "under conviction" and their discomfort looks for someone else to blame.  Just start examining your previous preaching performance, ask people you trust to give you some honest and gentle feed-back, ask for their prayers.  Every once in a while get up in the pulpit and  let the people know what you have learned and how you are trying to improve.

    Since I have had so many deficiencies I have had to lead with my humility, confessions, and requests for forgiveness.  Believe me, I am one of the proudest most ego-centric people I know, and I hate criticism.  I just want to get better at what God has called me to do, since what I do makes such a great difference in the lives of men and women, boys and girls.  I believe lives are at stake, not the score of a football game.

Monday, July 21, 2014



1.     Mercy ministry will be required in your church no matter what socio-economic group makes up your church or community.

2.    It would be wise to plan for it ahead of time so that you will have some wisdom, mechanism, or personnel to rise to the situation.

3.    Loving your neighbor or “doing good to all men especially to the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10) is not something you can put off until the 2nd, 3rd, or 5th year of the church plant.

4.    It is not just the poor that have dysfunctional families, addictions, legal, medical, and death issues.

5.    If you minister among the poor you will have more obvious dysfunctionality problems to deal with, with fewer resources.

6.    The pastor and Elders must protect their time of prayer and the Word, so they must delegate ministry to others so they can be free to do their primary work.  Pastors should never be the “sugar daddy.”

7.    It is the pastor’s job to “enable the saints to do the work of the ministry.” (Ephesians 4:11-12)  This means the pastor must teach, train, and target his workers for ministry.  To preach the “weightier matters of the Law” you must preach on mercy and justice, and if you preach on them you must show your congregation how to practice them.

8.    In Acts 6:3 we believe the first Deacons chosen were men “full of the Holy Spirit and Wisdom.”  Mercy is a spiritual work and it must be spiritually pursued.

9.    To effectively change the lives of the poor mercy must be “accountable, returnable, developmental, and ecclesiastical.” The local church is the community in which people can be discipled out of poverty.

10. To help your church be effective in mercy ministry the church must develop policies, priorities and process so they will know how to show mercy regularly, routinely and resourcefully without damaging the poor or the church (officers, members, and staff.)

11. Stop sending the poor away to other agencies and bring them into the Body of Christ.

12. Pray, plan and pursue an increase in the funds and personnel you will need to show and do mercy in ways that make a positive impact in your community.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


    Recently I went to visit a couple of church start ups in the cities of Grand Rapids, MI and Detroit, MI.  I imagine most people have heard of those cities.  Grand Rapids is associated with Dutch people, Reformed people, and lots of churches.  Did anyone know that black people live there, or Hispanics?   Did anyone know they have poor people, did anyone know there are a lot of people in that city?

    Then we have Detroit.  We all know there must be nothing left of Detroit except black people, and they are all poor, and they don't pay their water bills, and pretty soon the Federal Government will just come and repossess everything and sell it for scrap metal, and send all the municipal government officials to jail.

    I think of the perceptions of the city I grew up in, Newark, New Jersey.  Most of the country just thinks of the airport, but those who know about it don't think of great cities, they think of crime, and poverty, and corruption, .  I imagine folks think the same way about Camden, NJ.  Recently, while on the way to Camden, someone asked us if we knew what we were doing, what we were getting into.

   I think of the perceptions about the city where I presently live, Chattanooga, TN.  An outdoor city, an environmental city, the city with the fastest internet speeds, one of the fastest gentrifying zip codes in the nation, the most Biblical knowledge in the country, one of the most generous.

    I have some bad news and some good news.  The bad news is that every city has sinful, broken, and hurting people in it.  The bad news is that the cities that seem great also have a side to them that is not just a shame, but shameful.  Poverty, violence, bad schools, racial bitterness, and despair right in the face of urban prosperity and progress.  The bad news is that some churches in some of these "great" cities talk about "transforming the city," and  "loving the city," have almost no contact with the poor and no real impact (spiritually, socially, economically, educationally, etc.) on the actual lives of the city's most desperate people.

    Ah, but the good news.  This is something to which I bear witness and experience it on my visits.  In the worst of cities, as far as the public and the media are concerned, the Church of Jesus Christ, in some of its best representatives not only survives but thrives.  There is actual racial reconciliation happening, there is mercy in both relief and development happening, there is justice happening, there is a coalition and determination for progress in even the poorest of districts.  Love is going on, worship is going on, and joy is a reality.

    Maybe one of the advantages churches and Christians have in places which so many have written off is that they know the challenge, they know their backs are against the wall, and they rise to meet that challenge.  Maybe the disadvantage in places that seem to have all the advantages is that misery is missed right in our midst.

    As long as the curse from the Fall of man persists the challenge and opportunity of mercy, justice, love, rescue, restoration, rehabilitation, and reconciliation will persist.  I think this will be true in all our cities, no matter what they look like on the surface.

      I am thankful for cities of beauty, I am thankful for art, for green spaces, and play places, for the availability of good, nutritious, and plentiful food in accessible markets, for culture, and pleasing architecture, for jobs and employment for both the skilled and unskilled, the over educated and the illiterate.  I am thankful for growing churches and powerful preachers.  I am thankful for governments that work, and utilities that deliver, and municipal employees who actually give good and honest service.

   I am thankful that in cities where many of these wonderful amenities and blessings don't exist that there are still wonderful, intelligent, creative, loving, determined, and committed followers of Jesus  who love each other, love those around them, and love the place where they are planted.  I praise God for the salt of the earth, that hasn't lost it's savor.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


  I have been reading some horrendous newspaper articles recently about sex abuse, and murder.  It is not pleasant reading.  In fact it is very disturbing.  One man hung himself in his prison cell recently and now the investigation finds that he used to take girls from their   trusting and ambitious parents telling them he was from a modeling agency.  Carrying the girls to a hotel he drugged them, abused them, and filmed the whole thing.  

    Another man deliberately left his child in a hot car so the child would die while he was exchanging sex pictures over the internet with someone.  He didn't want his own child but he did want more virtual sex.  Out of revenge another man shot a child in front of the child's father so it would be the last thing the father would see before he himself was shot.  The child died but the father is still alive, though wounded.   Yes, I would agree that these are some sick puppies, not to insult puppies.

    Crimes against children are especially sad and infuriating.  How could anyone do such things, why would anyone do such a thing?    I am sorry to recount these stories but I have a point and they illustrate the point they drive me to make.  My point is that there is a very old fashioned idea to explain all of it, and it is depravity. 

 One might say, "yes, those men were depraved."  Or, "those were acts of depravity."  No, that is not what I mean.  I am saying that all human beings are depraved and sometimes that depravity breaks through in horrible and public displays of evil.

    This is an idea many people do not like, and of course it may feel like a personal insult.  Yes, I just called you the reader depraved, and I am confessing myself to be so as well.  No, I am not saying all of us will do such things as the news stories recite, but it takes no prophet to say that such things will happen again, and again, and again.

    Educated, civilized, and living in a country with clear laws against such behavior doesn't seem to stop it.  Understanding the background of abusers, or criminals. or sexual and homicidal perversions hasn't yet been able to help us prevent it.  

   The military has striven over the last decade or so to prevent sexual harassment and abuse, especially as its culture and population has changed to include many more women and now openly homosexual service members.  It has stressed professionalism, it has tightened regulations, it has had briefings after briefing, seminar after seminar, focus groups, and public investigation. 

     From generals on down the ranks continue to give way to sexual lust, and people use their power to leverage sex from subordinates.  How could such things keep happening?  How could such a worldly wise organization be so naive about people?

    My comments do not reflect despair or hopelessness.  I am glad we are all more than our depravity, but we are that and we need to own up to it.  I do think this is a realistic appraisal.  The only thing I despair over is our persistent run to denial in the face of human nature.  It is silly and stupid in my opinion to think that Law stops sin or crime. Obviously we budget for prisons because we know that just saying "no" or "don't do that" does not prevent people from "breaking bad."    

    The current wave of Islamic wars, Sunni versus Shia, Islamic radicals versus everyone, and most war in general tends to expose how evil people can get in attempting to strike terror in the hearts of their enemies, or simply the desire to hurt and dehumanize them.

    For those who are more theologically astute the idea of depravity is usually associated with Calvinism.  It has to do with the inability of human beings to believe in God unless God has mercifully chosen them to believe and then gives them the ability to believe through his Spirit.  Those who don't like the idea of God choosing who gets saved can have a hard time accepting the idea of a spiritual depravity that makes them essentially "dead" to God and "dead" in sin.

    Depravity is more than the tragedy of human inability to will themselves to God, which is pretty terrible I agree.  It is also about the pervasiveness of wickedness in each human, and the potential for disaster in that sinfulness.  No matter how professional, no matter how scientific, no matter how aware, we carry the problem inside us.

    We have several ways of dealing with human depravity. As I have mentioned there is denial, which is quite prevalent, but usually is laid as a foundation disconnected from harsh newspaper stories.  It is more closely associated with human achievement, human kindness, the sweetness of family, the innocence (we think) of children, the noble aspirations of achievers and benefactors.  We think the best of ourselves, and we lay this down as a working assumption about people.

   If people are depraved how could goodness exist?  This is one reason I am not in despair about it.  I do accept the reality of goodness in the world, certainly beauty, and an amazing proliferation of God's common grace coming through and from all kinds of people.  Sometimes even the worst of people does something good, on a given day, and hopefully it's  your day when you meet them.  Generally we all act in public as if other folks will obey the law, tell us the truth, not be cruel or predatory to us.

   We buttress ourselves against depravity.  We try education, we try sociological and psychological analysis, we try law, we try police, we try prisons, and we try to train ourselves and our children to be "street smart," and some of us go armed. The danger comes when we make too many assumptions about how that education, our historical and statistical summations, the threat of judicial punishment, the current political correctness against bullying and abusive behavior will all actually protect us from the monsters who turn out to be people who look an awful lot like us.

    Sometimes those "monsters" think they have a good reason for what they do (such as in politics, war, or ethnic and class conflict,) and sometimes their perversions, their lust and greed, hatreds, and addictions drive them.  

   As a Christian I have realized the grace of God enables me to be more than my depraved nature, and even more than the generally positive personality I might have inherited.  That possibility drives me to share the Gospel even with really evil and bad people, which in my mind includes everyone and not just felons and known public enemies.  I am not paranoid about people, but I am careful.  I love myself, but I am careful about myself, for I know that in my sinful nature there dwells no good thing.

    I want my children to be trusting, and absolutely wise and careful.  I want my daughter to be free to drive at night, and not wear a veil, and enjoy the freedom of an American woman.  I also want her to know that no matter what the society says women should be free to do there is enough evil in the world, in men and in all people, that she is condemned to be careful.  So are we all, ever since the sin came, and hasn't left.