Friday, January 4, 2019

For instance ...

This is for all of you who struggle to find a regular Bible reading discipline. If you have a discipline of regular Bible reading that works for you, that's great. Stick to it. But for those who struggle to find such a discipline, I'd like to give you a "for instance."
Yesterday, instead of my normal morning walk, I decided that it was time to get a haircut. I often listen to the Bible during my morning walk, but I wouldn't be able to do that since I was getting a haircut. I arrived at the barber shop at 7:20 a.m. and there was one customer ahead of me in the chair.  It was obvious that the barber and the customer knew each other well and they were deep in conversation about family members. I was the only other person in the shop. So I took out my smartphone and began my Bible reading through my Kindle app, picking up where I had left off the day before. By the time I got into the barber chair and started talking to Freddie the barber about his twin grandsons and his collard patch, I had read three chapters of Luke's gospel.
When I got in my car after my haircut, before I backed out of the parking space, I pulled up Biblegateway.com on the web browser of my smartphone.  I went to the next chapter in Luke's gospel. Among the many translations offered at Biblegateway, I chose the NIV because there's a speaker icon included with that translation which means I can listen to that version through my smartphone. I had to take a slight detour to pick up something at the cleaners, so it took me close to 20 minutes to get to the office. In that time I listened to another four chapters of Luke's gospel bringing my total chapter count for the day to seven.
This morning Alison, my daughter, had to be at work at WakeMed, Raleigh very early in the morning. That means I would take Natalie, her daughter (and my granddaughter, of course), to daycare. As is the case on most Fridays, I will spend most of the day in my man cave doing sermon work. 
So, when I got up, I put on a wireless headset connected to my smartphone. I've had this headset for over a year and the sound is pretty good and I paid $19.95 for it on Amazon--free shipping with Amazon Prime.  Once again, I opened Biblegateway.com on my smartphone browser and started listening to Luke's gospel where I left off yesterday. I tended to several normal morning chores and ate breakfast. Then I got my laptop and study materials set up in the man cave. Meanwhile, Terri was busily getting ready to head out for work.  After my chores, I stopped listening to the Bible and got Natalie ready to go, fed her breakfast and drove her to daycare. 
This is a morning routine I've been through many, many times, so it doesn't require intense focus, freeing me to devote most of my focus to the Bible verses that were being read to me as I did it.  By the time I had finished the chores and the man  cave set up, I had listened to another seven chapters of Luke's gospel. So, on these two mornings when I didn't do my normal, quiet, early morning walk, listening to the Bible, I still managed to read or listen to 14 chapters of Luke's gospel.
You may have favorite radio shows, music or podcasts that you like to listen to on your morning commute that you're hesitant to give up for Bible listening. That's okay, consider this. Let's say you have a goal of reading through the Bible each year. In order to accomplish that goal, you need to read 3.26 Bible chapters each day on average.  That means you need to read 22.82 chapters each week.
In my two reading/listening sessions of the last two days, I read or listened to 14 chapters of the Bible. But not all chapters are created equal--some are a lot longer than others. The average  chapter length of Bible chapters is 26.15 verses. The chapters in Luke's gospel that I read or listened to over the last two days are longer than the average. I did the math and, when I take into account the surplus verses above the average, I read or listened to the equivalent of 24.287 chapters by verse count in two brief reading/listening sessions in two days. So, if I was working toward a goal of reading the Bible in a year, I would be 1.467 chapters ahead for the whole week in only two brief reading/listening sessions. 
What that means is that, depending on the length of your commute, you might be able to get a week of Bible reading finished in one or two commutes.  So you can still listen to your favorite radio shows, podcasts or music on most days. Depending on your morning routine, you might be able to achieve your goal by listening to the Bible during your morning chores before you even get on the road as I did this morning before I headed out with Natalie for daycare. 
The point is, you can get in a lot of Bible "reading" in only a few minutes of Bible listening. If you have openings in your schedule that allow for some listening time, it only takes a few brief listening sessions to reach significant Bible "reading" goals.  Sure, it's great to have those moments of quietness to devote reverent attention to Bible reading. But if you have trouble finding a lot of moments like that, it certainly can't hurt to absorb some biblical teaching in the manner I've suggested here. Not only will it not hurt, I'm confident that it can help ... a lot. 
A link to Biblegateway.com is below. I suggest this option only because it's an avenue for listening to the Bible for free online. Of course, there are numerous options for downloading audio versions of the Bible so that you don't have to depend on using your web browser.  For those who prefer CD's, you can also get the Bible in that format and listen to it.
One more thing ... I mentioned a goal of reading through the Bible in a year. That's a fine goal. But consider the plan recommended in the Anglican church of reading the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice each year. If you simply read through the Bible once each year, then you will spend roughly two-thirds of your time in the Old Testament.  There's nothing wrong with that. But, if you wish to give the New Testament more equal time, then consider reading it twice during the year. And, if you listen on the go as I've suggested, this isn't an unreasonable goal.
Here's the Biblegateway.com link: https://www.biblegateway.com/
Happy listening!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Government grants, churches and religious liberty

Patrick Henry (1736-1799) was one of the leading figures of the American Revolutionary period, perhaps most famous for his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775. Nine years after that speech, in 1784, Henry introduced in the Virginia legislature a bill designed to help fund the work of churches. The proposal would send tax dollars from the government treasury to churches as a way to improve life in the state.

You might expect churches to embrace such a bill and, indeed, many did. But some churches opposed the measure with the fiercest critics of Henry’s proposal being Baptists. Indeed, Baptists were so dead set against this piece of legislation that they organized a movement against it. Petitions opposing the bill were sent in from Baptist bodies all across the state. Baptists sent more petitions against the proposal than any other group.

In the end a bill that had a popular beginning failed and historians credit Baptists with derailing the measure. Why were Baptists so strongly opposed to legislation that would have helped the budgets of their churches? It is because Baptists considered church-state separation far more important than any benefit that might come from government funding of their mission. Baptists of the late 1700s agreed with the stance of Baptist hero E. Y. Mullins of the early 1900s, that using tax dollars to aid church work is “the essence of union of church and state” and Baptists opposed uniting church and state. Every Baptist petition sent in opposition to Henry’s bill declared that effort of the government to financially assist churches “contrary to the spirit of the gospel.”

This chapter from Baptist life is likely one of many that Holly Hollman of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) had in mind in a statement she released earlier this week expressing disappointment over the ruling of the United States Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.  Trinity Lutheran Church had been denied a government grant from the state of Missouri for refurbishing its playground because of state law prohibiting taxpayer aid to religion. The High Court ruled that there is nothing blatantly religious about a playground and so denying the grant violated the church’s religious freedom rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 

The BJC had filed an amicus brief urging the court to uphold Missouri’s denial of the grant because of the church-state entanglements that arise from direct government funding of churches, which has historically been prohibited and which has been explicitly barred by several states. In her statement, Hollman said that, while the court claimed to be standing up for churches with this ruling, it actually worked against “the hard-fought battles of Baptists and other religious dissenters that abolished government controls over religion and secured church autonomy.” Battles like the one Baptists in Virginia waged against Patrick Henry’s bill in the late 1700s.

Traditionally Baptists have believed that churches should not go to the government with their hands out asking for money to be placed in them. They have taken this stand because they have historically considered direct government funding of the church’s mission to represent a union of church and state which Baptists long considered contrary to the spirit of the gospel. After all, when Satan tempted Jesus with the power of the governments of the world, our Lord rejected the offer as the temptation of the devil that it was.

In so doing, Jesus placed a separateness between his mission and the power of government. He did not provide us an example of trying to amass government power or seeking government aid in accomplishing his goals and he died not with the sword of government in his hand but with the spear of government in his side.

In this season that we celebrate the birthday of the land of the free let us rededicate ourselves to advocacy of religious freedom. In so doing, may we affirm the mechanism for protecting religious liberty long cherished by Baptists: the separation of church and state. Where we see that mechanism weakened let us support it in the tradition of our Lord who rejected the power of government as a means of achieving his goal.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sears and churches in a changing world

I was a seminary student in Fort Worth, Texas from the fall of 1988 until I graduated in the summer of 1991. After graduation I moved to North Carolina where I live to this day. I was the manager of a retail store in Virginia before moving to Texas and within five days of arriving in Fort Worth, I got a job as a part-time sales associate at a three-level, 240,000 square foot Sears store in Fort Worth Town Center on Seminary Drive only a few miles from my seminary apartment. I worked there, selling men's clothing and shoes, for the entire time that I was a student in Fort Worth. 

When I worked for Sears it was the largest retailer in the world. Shortly after I left the company Wal-Mart claimed that title. This morning I saw a news story proclaiming that the company that operates Sears (along with K-Mart) informed the Securities and Exchange Commission that "serious doubt exists" that the the 131 year-old company can stay in business. 

Like many traditional retailers, Sears is having trouble competing with online retailers. In Sears' case, however, several management decisions over the last two decades or so have exacerbated their problems. They are scrambling to come up with some cash by liquidating some real estate holdings and borrowing as they search for a new model that might allow them to keep their doors open. But there's a good chance that many of the 140,000 people employed by Sears might be looking for new jobs soon. 

Last Saturday, Terri and I wanted to get in a little exercise. It was raining, so we went to Cary Town Center Mall to take a walk. We made several passes by the vacant space that housed a Sears location up until it closed about two years ago. After I saw the news story about Sears' woes this morning, I looked up the location where I worked as a seminary student. It closed in 2002.

What's happening to Sears is further evidence that the retail landscape is changing rapidly, but then we all know that our whole world is changing ... fast. As Sears and many other retailers are having trouble keeping pace, so are many churches. A Lifeway study of 2015 revealed that 3,700 churches in this country closed their doors in 2014. The good news is that 4,000 new churches opened their doors that same year. However, one study indicates that about one-third of new church starts fail within four years. So it may appear that church openings are barely keeping pace with church closings, but the reality is probably worse.

Every generation of Christ-followers must prayerfully seek the best ways to translate the good news of Jesus Christ in an ever-changing world. I am convinced that, overall, the church will be successful in this task. Yes, some churches that are resistant to pondering new ways to tell the old, old story may close their doors. But I believe Jesus meant what he said when he proclaimed his intent to build his church and "the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18, NRSV).

I was a saddened to learn that Sears' doors may soon close. I'm even more saddened when I hear of churches that struggle to keep their doors open. Yet my occasional sadness at the plight of many churches of our culture is tempered by confidence in the promises of Christ. While the future of some churches may be in doubt, the future of the church is bright.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Why it's a bad idea to destroy the Johnson Amendment

At the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, President Trump, repeating one of his campaign promises, pledged to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment. This provision of the tax code, passed by Congress in 1954, states that "all section 501(c)(3) organizations [i.e. tax exempt nonprofits] are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office." Setting aside the fact that President Trump is unlikely to make good on this promise even if he really tries, I want to point out why it should be illegal for nonprofits, especially churches, to be actively involved in political campaigns.

Before I get to why political campaigning by nonprofits should be illegal, it's worth noting that this campaign promise doesn't seem to make much sense politically. According to a Lifeway poll of 2015, 79% of Americans disagreed with this statement: "I believe it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse candidates for public office during a church service." Only 25% of Americans with evangelical beliefs agreed with the statement. So it appears that the overwhelming majority of Americans, including a huge majority of evangelicals, don't like the idea of ministers endorsing political candidates anyway.

Besides that, the Johnson Amendment is pretty limited. Sure, pastors cannot, in their official capacity as ministers, endorse a candidate for public office. But ministers can get involved in political campaigns on their own time. They can place political bumper stickers on their cars, stick campaign signs on their property and otherwise use their own personal time and resources to promote (or attack) a candidate for public office. They just can't legally do so on the job. 

Furthermore, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) is onto something when it says that allowing campaigning in churches does harm to the nature of church life. In a statement released BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler, she said, 
Inviting churches to intervene in campaigns with tax-deductible offerings would fundamentally change our houses of worship. It would usher our partisan divisions into the pews and harm the church's ability to provide refuge. To change the law would hinder the church's witness, threatening to turn pulpit prophets into political puppets.
Okay, but why should it be illegal for tax exempt nonprofits, including churches, to be actively involved in promoting or attacking candidates for public office? Maybe most Americans don't want nonprofits doing political campaigning, maybe the limitations the law places on ministers are limited, maybe campaigning in churches can do harm to the church's witness. But why should it be illegal

Simple. The Johnson Amendment assures that taxpayers do not subsidize partisan politicking. It also ensures that tax-exempt entities do not become a conduit for tax-exempt contributions to political candidates. Because it's not fair for taxpayers to subsidize partisan politicking and for tax-exempt organizations to serve as pipelines for tax-exempt donations to candidates, it should be illegal for tax-exempt nonprofits, including churches, to be actively involved in political campaigns.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment will literally require an act of Congress which appears to be unlikely. That's a good thing.

Monday, January 30, 2017

I was a stranger and ...

"...the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for ... I was a stranger and you welcomed me ...' Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you ... a stranger and welcomed you ... ?' And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was ... a stranger and you did not welcome me ..." Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you ... a stranger ... and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (From Matthew 25:34-46, NRSV)

This is a portion of one of Jesus' descriptions of the final judgment. Just sayin' ...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Messengers, Not Delegates

There is a discussion playing out in news headlines right now that underscores the reason for a seemingly odd practice in at least some Baptist circles. As you have probably seen, there are deep divisions in the GOP over Donald Trump serving as the presidential nominee of the party. Indeed, opposition to Trump in party ranks is so strong that some delegates to the Republican National Convention are pressing for a change in the rules allowing them to vote their conscience so they won't be forced to vote for Trump.

In general, delegates can't necessarily vote according to their own conscience. By definition delegates attend a convention with delegated authority from some other body to vote according to the instructions of the body that sent them. Delegates are expected to vote according to the instructions of the sending body whether or not those instructions are aligned with their consciences.  

In the Baptist circles of which I've been a part for much of my life, those who register to vote at Baptist conventions or general assemblies are known as messengers rather than delegates. The reason for this seemingly odd terminology is linked to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. One of the implications of this doctrine is that we believe it is wrong to coerce the conscience of a fellow believer (or anyone else for that matter). Messengers, unlike delegates, are expected to prayerfully vote their own consciences at a convention or general assembly. 

Every year it seems there are examples of the press labeling voters at Baptist conventions or general assemblies "delegates" rather than "messengers." Indeed, I've heard quite a few long-time Baptists make this mistake.  Certainly there are more pressing issues facing us than the names we use for convention voters. But it isn't often that we get such a good teaching moment to highlight the fact that many Baptists use the term "messenger" rather than "delegate" and the reason for the difference.


Monday, June 6, 2016

Jury duty ... again

This Wednesday I have to report for jury duty here in Wake County, North Carolina. Originally I was to report about two weeks ago, right in the middle of a cruise that Terri and I had been planning for months. Fortunately, I was able to get a postponement, but, unless I hear something otherwise in the next couple of days, I will have to show up at the courthouse later this week.

This will be the third time in 22 years that I have been called for jury duty. The fist time I was summoned to federal court in Wilmington, North Carolina. In that instance I was selected to serve on a jury and the trial lasted for a full nine days--nearly two full work weeks. The second time I was again selected to serve on a jury for a case in district court in Brunswick County, North Carolina. That trial lasted a full four days and I was elected foreman of that jury.

I don't mean to shirk my civic duty, but I've been asking around and I can't find anyone else who has done as much time in jury service as I have. I haven't taken a scientific survey and I'm sure there are quite a few people out there who have been called more and have served longer on juries. Yet in my circle of friends and family, I have found no one who has been called for jury duty as many times or served as many days as I have. Furthermore, numerous registered voters and/or licensed drivers (master jury lists are compiled from lists of registered voters and licensed drivers) have told me that they have been of jury selection age in North Carolina for 30-plus, 40-plus and 50-plus years and have never been called for jury duty.  

I realize that it's possible to be called for jury duty every two years. Yet after asking around and finding no one else who has served as many times or as many days, I'm starting to wonder how I'm getting so "lucky" about jury service. I'm beginning to have some suspicions about the randomness of the selection process.

If it sounds like I'm complaining, well, I guess I am. Still, I'll be at the courthouse on Wednesday and I'll do my best to serve well as a juror if I'm impaneled. But, to be honest, I'm starting to feel like I've done my time when it comes to jury duty. I hope I get off easy this time by getting excused.