Friday, September 28, 2007

One saved, one dies in Texas

Carlton Turner gave glory to God when his life was saved yesterday. Michael Richard, however, didn't make it.

According to an article here the U. S. Supreme Court yesterday halted the execution of the 28-year old Turner less than two hours before he was scheduled to die in Texas by lethal injection. On Tuesday the high court agreed to hear a case on the constitutionality of executions by lethal injection. Turner's lawyers tied an appeal to that case and a last minute stay was issued.

On the other hand the same report says Michael Richard died in Texas by lethal injection on Tuesday just a few hours after the Supreme Court decision to hear a case on the constitutional merits lethal injections. His lawyers attributed the rejection of their appeal to the short time frame in which they had to prepare it before the scheduled execution.

So, on Tuesday, Michael Richard died by lethal injection a few hours after the Supreme Court decided to review the constitutionality of the practice. On the other hand, on Thursday, the life of young Carlton Turner was saved pending that same review. Carlton Turner is rejoicing; Michael Richard is dead.

I don't know Michael Richard but if there is anybody out there who cares about him this must be a very bad day for them. I cannot imagine what it must be like to get word that another man was saved under circumstances identical to those under which a loved one died two days earlier. Richard was pronounced dead at 8:23 p.m. on Tuesday. If his execution had been slated for just a few hours later, would that have granted enough time for the lawyers to put together the same sort of appeal that saved Turner? What must it be like for the family members of Michael Richard to know how close he was to living at least a little longer? But alas "we the people" decided to go ahead and kill him.

The crimes of which these two murderers were convicted are heinous. Turner, at age 19, shot and killed both of his parents, dragged their bodies into the garage, and threw a party for the weekend. Richard raped and shot dead Marguerite Lucille Dixon, a 53-year-old nurse and mother of seven. For such utterly despicable acts these men deserve to be punished severely.

I am convinced that life imprisonment would be a sentence more in keeping with biblical principles than execution. Yes, the Bible does allow for capital punishment, but the accounts of Cain, Moses, and David teach us that the scriptures do not require the death penalty for murder. The Bible also allows for slavery, yet the principles of the new Testament are credited with thankfully ending that institution in this country. The principles of the New Testament can and should do the same for the death penalty.

Romans 1:16 tells us that the gospel is "the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes" (TNIV). The power of God is powerful enough to transform anyone, even murderers, but not if we give them lethal injections first. We can protect society from the likes of Carlton Turner and Michael Richard short of killing them. Because life is precious and because the gospel, the power of God, can transform anyone we must put murderers in prison for life rather than executing them.

"Life for life" is the principle given in Deuteronomy 19:21 and several other passages. The state can embody this principle in its laws by taking the lives of murderers through life imprisonment. Indeed, taking the lives of murderers through life imprisonment is true to the "life for life" principle while upholding the crucial scriptural principle of the sanctity of human life.

Study after study has shown that capital punishment has no deterrent effect on crime. Moral questions should not be decided based on money, but if we were to factor in dollars and cents, the death penalty costs more than life imprisonment. Capital cases, with the mandatory appeal process, are very expensive. We can't do away with the expensive appeals process, because we will run the risk of executing an innocent person as we almost did here in North Carolina in the case of Alan Gell.

Come to think of it, from neither a biblical perspective nor a practical perspective can I come up with any decent argument to continue the death penalty.

Carlton Turner got a last minute reprieve and Michael Richard didn't because "we the people" can't figure out what to do about the death penalty. Would that "we the people" settled the question by taking the lives of murderers through life imprisonment thus giving the power of God every opportunity to do its transforming work while at the same time protecting society from killers.

Monday, September 24, 2007

On sharing and duct tape

Amanda is my youngest daughter and her car broke down on Friday evening about 50 miles away. As soon as she called to let me know I jumped in my car and went to her. I determined that her vehicle would not make it home and got it to a safe place.

On Saturday I called some friends, Bruce and Cyndy, who are also members of the church I serve and asked if I could borrow their pickup and trailer to get Amanda's car to a mechanic. They readily agreed. My wife, Terri, and I went to pick up the towing rig. Bruce helped us get the trailer hooked to the pickup and soon we were on our way.

When the trip was complete we returned the truck and trailer, but Bruce and Cyndy were not home. Terri called Cyndy on her cell phone and thanked her and let her know that we had returned the rig. Cyndy relayed a question to me--she wanted to know if I had used any duct tape. The next day at church Bruce caught me in the hallway and asked with a smirk if I had the right color duct tape for the car moving operation.

Why all the questions about duct tape? I was afraid you'd ask that.

In March of 2006 I borrowed Bruce and Cyndy's truck and trailer to move another car, except this one was new . . . to me. I drove to a government surplus vehicle auction planning to be successful by taking the tow rig. I got a good deal on a Ford Taurus that I still drive. Excited about my purchase I planned carefully to get it on the trailer, lining up the ramps just right and checking the clearance everywhere . . . I thought. After driving the car onto the trailer I breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn't until I went to secure the car to the trailer with chains that I saw it.

In the loading operation I had damaged a piece of fiberglass or some such polymer compound under the front bumper. I wondered how in the world I had done it. After a little investigation I figured out that a corner of a small square of metal at the rear of the trailer was in just the right spot to rip the fiberglass.

I was sick. I had driven my new car maybe 50 feet and I had already messed it up. It was a big time bummer. Making a bad situation worse was the fact that the sagging fiberglass nearly touched the ground. It would have to be secured in some way until I could get it repaired at a body shop. What could I use to hold up the broken piece until a permanent fix was in place?

You guessed it: duct tape. The only bit of good news was that my new Taurus was gray--the color of standard issue duct tape. So my temporary solution, while painfully obvious to me, was not immediately obvious to others.

I got the car home and unloaded without any further damage. I returned the truck and trailer to Bruce and Cyndy without saying a word about what I did to my car. In fact, they would not have ever known about it . . . if it weren't for my wife, Terri.

Our youth were putting on a dinner theater at church several months after my car purchase. Cyndy directed the play. One night Terri, who is also the youth minister, was at a rehearsal sitting with Cyndy. The characters included a really funny church janitor who liked to repair everything with, of course, duct tape. Terri managed to keep it together until a scene in which the janitor proudly showed off the way he had repaired even his car with duct tape.

My wife's belly laughs were disproportional to the humor value at this point and Cyndy asked what was going on. So Terri told her about the way I had repaired my brand new Taurus with the sticky gray stuff. Cyndy then laughed even harder than Terri.

It is really nice of Bruce and Cyndy to loan me their truck and trailer on occasion. They always let me use it without hesitation. The practice reminds me a little of some expressions in the early chapters of Acts about folks in the early church having "everything in common" and not claiming "any of their possessions was their own," but sharing "everything they had" (Acts 2:44; 4:32). I have benefitted from Bruce and Cyndy's faithfulness to that New Testament pattern and I appreciate their help greatly . . .

But I don't remember those verses saying anything about rubbing it in about duct tape repairs.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A matter of perspective

I was late. It was November of 1980 and I was driving from Appomattox, Virginia (my home town) to Roanoke, Virginia to catch a plane. This was the first time I ever flew commercially and I had not allowed myself adequate time for the journey. Complicating matters on this morning drive was a dense fog that slowed me down as I attempted a mad dash for the airport.

And I mumbled and grumbled against that fog.

But I made it—caught my flight just barely. I settled into my window seat and let the tension drain away. Helping to lower my stress level was an amazing scene below me as the airliner rose over the mountains surrounding Roanoke.

The sky was a cool, crisp, deep blue and down below were autumn colored mountains. In the valleys between the mountains were giant cotton balls. Well, that’s what they looked like. Actually they were clouds but these clouds were not behaving in normal cloud-like fashion. Instead of floating high in the sky they hugged the valleys below such that they looked like giant cotton balls that God had pressed down between the mountains with his thumb.

It was a beautiful scene.

Then it hit me! Those giant cotton balls were the fog that slowed me down going to the airport! Down below I mumbled and I grumbled against those clouds. Up above I oohed and ahhed over their beauty. Same clouds. The only thing that changed was my perspective on them.

The way we look at something or someone makes a world of difference. The opening verses of Luke 15 teach us something about the way we should look at people, especially the way we look at those considered the most immoral people of society.

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law complained that Jesus formed close bounds with some of the most sinful people of that day. Jesus spent a lot of time with people with bad reputations and some of the most religious folks of that time thought this was terrible. They saw immoral people as despicable things to be avoided.

In response Jesus told some stories about things of value being lost, sought after, found and celebrated. So Jesus saw those considered to be the most immoral as people of great value to be sought after. The most respected religious people saw them as scum to steer clear of.

Same people. The only difference was the way they were viewed.

What’s your perspective on those considered to be the most immoral people in our society? The way we look at someone makes a world of difference. Do we look at people with bad reputations in the way that Jesus looked at them?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Churched out and unchurched

My wife, Terri, and I ate out twice in the last three days. At one of these meals we ate with a couple that is "churched out." At the other we ate with a couple that is unchurched.

On Saturday evening we dined with a couple that I am only just getting to know. They are 60-ish and very active in their church. During the meal the husband, who I will call Ed, said that he had a question for me: "How often should a Christian be expected to go to church?" He explained that he gets to church every Sunday morning a 8:00 a.m. for a weekly men's prayer breakfast, then there is Sunday School and worship, and, if he is lucky, he gets away by 12:30 p.m. Often Ed has Sunday afternoon church committee meetings before Sunday evening services which he attends faithfully.

On Tuesdays Ed's church sponsors a special worship service in the community for a group that is busy on Sunday mornings and he attends this service too. Wednesday evening means prayer meetng. Oh, and then there are the committee meetings on week nights.

Four worship services, Sunday School and a prayer breakfast every week plus a steady diet of committee meetings. Ed is a businessman and he has a family. He is also very active in at least two other Christian organizations outside of the church of which I am aware.

Ed is feeling "churched out," and I don't blame him. Maybe I shouldn't have, but I told him exactly what I thought about his church involvement: "That's too much."

This evening my wife and I had dinner with a couple in their 20's that almost never goes to chruch. I read an article not too long ago about a study indicating that people in this age group are leaving church in droves. But, of course, the unchurched population is not limited to 20-somethings. According to some 3-year old numbers from The Barna Group, there are 75 million unchurched adults in this country and the average age of those in this group is 41. An unchurched person according to Barna's definition is one who "has not attended a Christian church service within the past six months, not including a holiday service (such as Easter or Christmas) or a special event at a church (such as a wedding or funeral)." Far below Ed's standards.

So what is the answer to Ed's question? How often should a Christian be expected to go to church? I know that Hebrews 1o:25 says that Christians are not to neglect gathering together as some are in the habit of doing, but how often are we to gather? Luke 4:16 tells us that it was Jesus' custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, but I wonder if he went to as many worship services in a week as Ed does?

I don't think there are any simple biblical formulas for determining how often Christians should go to church. If Jesus' example is important to you, and I hope it is, then church services should be the custom of his followers as synagogue services were his custom. Exactly how many times a week should you go to church? I don't know, but I think it should be more than the couple we dined with tonight and probably less than Ed and his wife.

I have a thought on this, but before I give it to you I need to redefine a word. In my faith tradition to be "churched" is to be kicked out of church. I never liked that term. I hereby redefine "churched" in its verbal form to mean getting someone in church instead of getting kicked out of church. In its noun form "churched" is the opposite of "unchurched." Got it?

I do think we should be careful not to encourage the churched to get "churched out" like Ed. I wonder if one way to get the unchurched churched is by not "churching out" the churched. Maybe by not over churching the churched, the churched will have more time and energy to church the unchurched.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Baptist news on the web

Since I am a Baptist pastor and since I promoted this blog to members of the church I serve, a few family members (who are Baptist), and one other friend (who is Baptist) I'm thinking that mostly Baptists are reading this. So, you web savvy Baptists, among the spots you visit on the World Wide Web, do you ever check out web sources for Baptist news? Let me point you in the direction of the Baptist news web pages that I check out regularly.

Baptists Today features "Daily News from around the World" that may be of interest to Baptists and the thought provoking blogs of Tony Cartledge and John Pierce along with editorials from Baptist thinkers.

Associated Baptist Press (ABP) is "the nation’s first and only independent news service created by and for Baptists." Besides Baptist news this page includes religious "news elsewhere" and opinion pieces from David Gushee. is the web page of the Baptist Center for Ethics. Here you will find numerous news items along with interesting columns and other resources as well.

Of course the Biblical Recorder is the news journal of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina with which many reading this blog will be familiar.

Check out these web pages. Think about creating a "Baptist News" folder in your "favorites" and include the links above.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Still ticked at the NFL

Sunday night football is on as I write this. I am a big football fan, but I am not really paying any attention to this evening match up between the Cowboys and the Giants. I confess that my TV is tuned in to the game, but the sound is turned down and I am staring at my computer screen rather than the television screen. Last year if this game were on Sunday night, the sound would be up and my eyes would be glued to the TV and there would be a bowl of popcorn in my lap and I would be commenting on the game and yelling at the screen every now and again. Not tonight.

I live in North Carolina and earlier today the Carolina Panthers won. I know this not because I watched the game which was televised here, but because I saw the score posted online somewhere. I would have cheered them on last year and celebrated the victory. Not today.

Why this coolness toward pro football? I'm still ticked off with the NFL.

I have not forgotten their crackdown on church Super Bowl parties earlier this year. We, at our church, like thousands of other churches, were forced to cancel our Super Bowl party at the last minute because the NFL began sending threatening letters to churches in various parts of the country claming that such gatherings violate copyright laws. For the first time in years our fellowship hall was dark on the evening of Super Bowl Sunday.

Certainly it is not a devastating blow to our church to discontinue Super Bowl parties. There is no verse in the Bible commanding us to hold such an event. But the scriptures do indicate that koinonia--fellowship--is very important. Our Super Bowl Party was an opportunity for members of the congregration and their friends to spend some time together and get to know each other a little better. Our church Super Bowl Party was not required by the scriptures but it was in keeping with scriptural teachings.

We had enlisted one of our deacons who is a sports lover to deliver a devotional during halftime at our 2007 Super Bowl party. It is precisely such a proclamation of a biblical message that the NFL claimed was a violation of applicable copyright law. Oh there were other features of church Super Bowl parties toward which the league cast penalty flags. The broadcast had to be shown on screens of not more than 55-inches and there could be no admission charge. But the NFL also barred the proclamation of a message in conjunction with church Super Bowl parties.

We never have charged an admission to our church Super Bowl gathering, however, our TV screen is 60-inches. We investigated borrowing or renting a smaller television, but decided not to. We were unwilling to cancel our halftime devotional to otherwise comply with the NFL's rules.

I have tried to relate to the concerns of the NFL. If I understand correctly the TV ratings system is built on in-home viewing. Church Super Bowl parties, it is claimed, reduce in-home viewing which in turn reduces ratings which could adversely impact ad revenues generated by the game. This NFL argument against church Super Bowl parties might work better for me if the league did not grant an exception to sports bars broadcasting the game. It seems discriminatory to allow viewings of the Super Bowl outside of the home at places where alcohol consumption is at least as central to the gathering as the game but to disallow viewings outside of the home in churches where alcohol is probably not on the menu.

Apparently the NFL does not want messages proclaimed in conjunction with the Super Bowl in order to protect the integrity of their product. I guess the league was concerned that some messages in church Super Bowl parties might somehow hurt pro football. However, it appears drunken epithets shouted in sports bars pass muster with the NFL.

In the end it is the abridgment of freedom that bugs me most in the league's crackdown on church Super Bowl parties. It just does not sit well with me that a football league can tell us that we can't go to our church fellowship hall together and watch a football game if we want to. I don't like it a bit.

I don't know how much I might end up watching pro football this year. I do know that I am not really excited about watching anything the NFL produces right now.