Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What are you so worried about?

I think we received more requests for a recording of the sermon of this past Sunday than any sermon I've ever preached. I'm not convinced the sermon was all that good. It just took up a topic that is a struggle for many people: worry.

Sunday's sermon was the second in a series on the story of a leper named Naaman found in 2 Kings 5. In this installment we focused on verses 4-8 in which the King of Israel received a request that he misinterpreted badly. Naaman was the commander of the military forces of neighboring Aram and he received word that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure him of his leprosy. He went to the King of Israel with a note from the King of Aram requesting healing for Naaman.

Somewhere in the chain of communication there was some confusion because the note from the King of Aram asked that the King of Israel rather than the prophet to cure Naaman. When the King of Israel received this request that he could fill he assumed the worst. He tore his robes in an expression of grief and stated his conviction that this must be part of a plot to start a war.

Well, that wasn't it at all. This was no prelude to war. Naaman just needed some help and he heard that he could find that help in Israel. The King of Israel was very worried about what might happen. He was worried about a threat that did not exist. He thought there was a threat--a very serious threat--but he was wrong.

When Elisha the prophet heard about the King's response to the note, he sent a message to him in which he asked, "Why have you torn your robes?" (2 Kings 5:8, TNIV). Again, the tearing of the robes was an expression of grief and, in this context, it was specifically an expression of the King's worries about what might happen. So, in essence, the prophet asked the King, "What are you so worried about?"

The truth was the King had nothing to worry about.

As we saw on Sunday, this episode points us in the direction of several New Testament teachings that make us aware that the followers of Christ should not be worriers. One of the most significant passages in this regard is this word of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matt. 6:34, TNIV).

Don't worry about tomorrow. Don't worry about what might happen in the future. This is the teaching of Jesus to his followers. He didn't say that we won't have any troubles, for we will have troubles. He didn't say that we won't experience pain in this world, for we will experience pain. But the Lord did indicate that we must not worry about such things. Can we do that? Is it realistic?

Do we believe the Bible?

The King of Israel was worried about what might happen but things weren't nearly so bad as he thought. That's often the way it is with the things we worry about. But the really good news is that, even if things are as bad as we think or even worse, Jesus indicates that we still must not worry.

The thing that really gets me about Jesus' saying that we must not worry about tomorrow is that he was on his way to the cross and he knew it. And the the cross was really horrible. Still he said, "Don't worry about tomorrow." In other words, no matter what you face, don't worry about tomorrow. The promise of the resurrection made Jesus that confident.

Do we trust him? Then what are we so worried about?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A hopeful dead tree?

I saw a headline in the Star News out of Wilmington, NC that the city has nixed the ceremony connected to the lighting of the "World's Largest Living Christmas Tree" this year, a tradition dating back to 1928. Several factors contributed to the decision including construction at the water plant on the site of the tree and budget constraints. But another reality that has been apparent for years is that the Live Oak that is the "World's Largest Living Christmas Tree" is dying, a fact that is readily visible in the photo above. Many years ago a pole had to be added to support Christmas lights that the dying upper branches could no longer bear.

The news of the decision to cancel this year's ceremony aroused a bit of sadness in me. When my daughters were younger, we attended that ceremony numerous times. To this day I try to get by to see the lighted tree every year around Christmas time.

Really I think it is the sight of the tree in the daylight that brings more sadness than the cancelling of the ceremony. I haven't attended the ceremony in years. In the night, when I always see the dying tree, the darkness hides the dead branches to an extent. But the sight of the tree in daylight is a bit depressing. Were it not for the history connected to the tree I doubt anyone these days would choose it to be decorated for Christmas.

But another thought struck me that might remove some of the sadness of the sight of a dying Christmas tree. Perhaps the oak could be viewed in the Advent tradition of the Jesse Tree. Advent is the four-week period before Christmas that many Christians observe as a expectant season of celebrating the first coming of Christ and anticipating his return.
The tradition of the Jesse Tree is based on the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11:1: "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit" (TNIV). Jesse was the Father of David, and Jesus, the Messiah, came from the line of David. Christ, then, is the shoot from the stump of Jesse. The passage is a portrait of the greatest hope arising from what appears to be utter hopelessness.
In keeping with this imagery, a Jesse Tree is a dead, bare branch typically secured in sand or rocks. The ornaments are all based on the Old Testament to symbolize the "roots" of Jesus. So the Jesse Tree is a dead tree adorned with symbols of biblical promises. It serves to remind Christ-followers that, though our world may at times seem hopeless, through Christ, we always possess a living hope (1 Peter 1:3).
I'm sorry to see the World's Largest Living Christmas Tree in its dying state. Yet, even though it may be a mere shadow of its former glory, it can still be a symbol of hope. If the prophet could see evidence of hope in a tree stump, can't a decorated, dying tree help us to remember not only the cross but an empty tomb?
I'm thinking about adding a Jesse Tree to our Advent tradition this year.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Beyond the sacred page

In an argument with some of the most respected religious folks of the day, Jesus said, "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40, TNIV).

It is crucial that we read the Bible because it testifies to Jesus. The words of the scriptures are not just words on a page for us. The written word helps to connect us with the living Word. The Bible is our authoritative guide for our faith in Christ and our authoritative guide of our practice of following Christ. In the words of the old hymn, Break Thou the Bread of Life, "Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord; My spirit pants for Thee, O living Word!"

"... come to me to have life," Jesus said.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Burning the Quran is wrong

By now you've heard of the plan of a church in Gainsville, Florida to burn copies of the Quran on September 11. The National Association of Evangelicals said the planned Quran burning would "show disrespect for our Muslim neighbors and would exacerbate tensions between Christians and Muslims throughout the world." Richard Land, director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the plan of the Florida church is "appalling, disgusting and brainless." Tony Cartledge, associate editor of Baptists Today, said the Quran burning would be a violation of Jesus' call to "spread a gospel of love and peace, even for one's perceived enemies." These are just a few of the evangelical Christians, including many Baptists, who have come out against the planned Quran burning.

Now General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said that the planned destruction of Qurans could endanger U.S. troops in the country and Americans worldwide. "Images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence," Petraeus said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

The planned Quran burning is not just stupid. It's not just crazy. It's not just unwise. It's not just dangerous. From a Christian perspective the plan to burn the Quran is wrong, just wrong.

From so many angles one could point out the wrongness of this event. It violates Jesus' principle that his followers are to be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Mat. 10:16, TNIV) in their relations with others. The Golden Rule that we must do to others as we would have them to to us (Mat. 7:12) applies. We wouldn't want for Muslims to burn Bibles so we shouldn't burn copies of the Quran. As Dr. Cartledge points out above, the planned Quran burning, an act certainly designed to be offensive, fails to exhibit love toward those who are considered enemies (Mat. 5:44). The proposed event of the Florida church is hateful and Jesus never called his followers to be hateful--quite the contrary.

One passage that came to my mind when I heard about the planned Quran burning is Luke 9:51-56. In this passage Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem through Samaritan territory. Jesus was, of course, a Jew and Samaritans and Jews did not get along very well. He sent word ahead to a Samaritan village that they should make preparations for his arrival according to the custom of that time but the village refused to welcome Jesus and his followers.

When James and John, two of the disciples, saw what happened they asked Jesus if he wanted for them to call fire down from heaven to destroy the people of that village. I have often wondered if James and John were cracking a joke with this question. There is nothing else in the gospels to indicate they had the power to call fire from heaven and nothing in Jesus' teaching indicates that they should do such a thing. The rejection of the Samaritans was, no doubt, a difficult moment and I wonder if the so-called "sons of thunder" sought to ease the tension with a joke.

If it was a joke, Jesus didn't think it was funny. If James and John were serious in their inquiry, Jesus is clear that he didn't like their suggestion at all: "Jesus turned and rebuked them" (v. 55, TNIV).

The passage says nothing about Jesus rebuking the people who rejected him. No, he rebuked his own followers who spoke of taking action against those who rejected him. Jesus was shunned by a group of people. In response, according to verse 56, he and his disciples simply moved on to another village. They didn't protest. They didn't argue. They certainly didn't burn any scrolls. And the only rebuking in the account was that of Jesus against his own followers at the suggestion that they take action against those who rejected him.

This gospel story speaks pretty directly to the plan of the Florida church to burn the Quran. At the web page of the church that plans this event, ten reasons for burning the Quran are listed. Reason number one indicates that the Quran rejects Jesus because "it teaches that Jesus Christ ... was NOT the Son of God, nor was he crucified ..." So the folks in this church in Florida justify their action against Muslims because Islamic teaching in the Quran effectively rejects Jesus. But Jesus rebuked his followers for even suggesting the idea of taking action against those who rejected him (Luke 9:55). The Lord peacefully moved on and sought not to inflame the tensions.

Based on the teaching of Jesus, burning the Quran is just wrong.

Monday, August 16, 2010

On the mosque near Ground Zero ...

You've heard about the plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero. A lot of people oppose placing a mosque there. I've heard some people say that the government should do something to stop the construction of this Islamic center.

There was a time in this land when government agencies knew the value of restricting the practices of religious groups considered radical, even to the point of placing limits on where the radicals could worship. I know of a case where a government agency in this land sealed off a house of worship, nailing the doors shut, because the beliefs of the group meeting there were considered dangerous. The government passed a law that "no person should erect or make use of a house for public worship, without license from the authorities." Of course the authorities saw to it that no licenses were issued for this disturbing religious sect.

Oh, wait a minute. These restrictions on houses of worship were directed against Baptists. In 1679 Boston Baptists constructed their first building and the government kicked them out of it and passed an ex post facto law to make sure that Baptists would build no more houses of worship. The beliefs of Baptists were considered a blight on society and the majority agreed that they didn't want any Baptist churches built in that city.

It is because of such persecution that Baptists were in the forefront of the struggle to secure complete religious liberty in this nation. They believed that religious freedom should be a fundamental right and so they declared that people of all faiths should be able to worship when they want and where they want. Baptists were instrumental in the effort to establish the United States as the first place on earth that favored no religion and placed no restrictions on the religious practices of anyone of any faith.

I realize there are raw emotions connected to the events of September 11, 2001. But should we allow these emotions to consume a right that is fundamental to defining the United States as a free country?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Managing God's grace

If you are a Christ-follower then you are a manager--a manager of God's grace.

According to 1 Peter 4:10, the followers of Christ are managers of God's grace in its various forms. Think of it! A manager of the grace of God. Doesn't that sound like an important job?

However, being a member of Christ's management team isn't the same as typical notions of being a manager in corporate America. While management positions are often seen as power positions, 1 Peter 4:10 indicates that we become faithful mangers of God's grace by using the gifts that God has given to us to serve others.

After we have begun a journey of faith with Christ, the Christian life is not primarily about you feeling good or getting the stuff you want or being comfortable in your little version of the American Dream. No, my friends, the name of the game is using whatever God has given you in service to others.

In this way you become a faithful manager of God's grace and it is only as you faithfully manage God's grace that you will find the meaning that you seek.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Above All Else (Part 1)

This past Sunday I began a series of sermons entitled "Above All Else" that will focus on sayings from the Bible that begin with that phrase or something similar. It seems a little strange to preach a multi-part sermon series with the title "Above All Else." Since "above all else" prefaces what is considered most important, you would think that there would be only one sermon in the series, in which case it would not be a series at all. But the various biblical "above all else" sayings were delivered largely to different audiences at different times and the most important concern for one group at one time was not necessarily the most important concern for another group at another time.

On Sunday we considered Proverbs 4:23: "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life" (NIV). If I could add a subtitle to this verse I would borrow a refrain from a Counting Crows song: "You don't wanna waste your life."

Your life springs from your heart--your inner being. So guard your heart because you don't want to waste your life. But how do you guard your heart?

The answer reveals that, somewhat ironically to the thinking of our culture, there is an inextricable link between your inner life and your outward actions. In Proverbs 4:24-27 you are told to watch your mouth and to walk a path of proper behavior and moral integrity. So you guard your inner being, from which your life springs, by guarding your outward behavior. There is not such a hard and fast division between our inner lives and our outward actions. Each one shapes the other.

We considered this passage as we approached the Lord's Table, an act of worship through which we remember the cross where Jesus showed us his heart through his outward actions. I can't think of a better lens for bringing the teaching of Proverbs 4:23 into sharper focus. How do you guard your heart? Live according to Jesus' example of expressing sacrificial love on behalf of those in need. May our hearts be shaped more like our Lord's as we steadfastly follow him.

Because we don't wanna waste our lives.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Spirit is in the community of faith

This morning, on the eve of Pentecost, I was poking around online and pondering the Holy Spirit. I found a few lines of Barry Litfin that are worth mulling over. A few years ago he wrote a book entitled Getting to know the Church Fathers in which he addressed his concern that evangelicals of today tend to cast aside and important part of their heritage. In an interview at christianitytoday.com, Litfin was asked about the role of the Holy Spirit. His response offers an appropriate reminder for evangelicals. Here is that response and, remember, "pneumatology" is the study of the Holy Spirit and "ecclesiology" is the study of the church:

The Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who indwells the believer, but also believers collectively as the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who indwells the church. What you have to do is
intertwine ecclesiology and pneumatology.

The role of the Holy Spirit that evangelicals typically tap into is "the Spirit in me." So I've got the Spirit and I can sit and look at the text, and I can figure it out. But that's not really the only way to think about the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Holy Spirit is the Comforter, but he is also indwelling the fullness of the church.

What a proper pneumatology does is move us away from pure ndividualism and move us toward a high ecclesiology that is willing to then look at the collective witness of the church, which I would define as tradition. The Holy Spirit's role, as much as it is to illumine my personal understanding of Scripture, perhaps even more is to illumine the body as a whole. At which I can partake of that gift of time-honored inheritance.

What do you think? Do we tend to overemphasize the indwelling of the Spirit in the individual believer and downplay the role of the Holy Spirit in the the church as a whole?

Monday, May 10, 2010

God lives here

Terri and I are trying to decide where to go during an upcoming vacation. One of the options under consideration is the Ellerbe Springs Inn in Ellerbe, North Carolina. This facility is now a bed and breakfast and restaurant. I believe several buildings have been added down through the years, but the original house was built in 1820.

I called the folks at the Ellerbe Springs Inn and asked a few questions about the place. Locals have told me that Eleanor Roosevelt once stayed there so I asked which room she stayed in during her visit. I was told that the First Lady stayed in room 4, which has a queen bed, a full bath and a fireplace.

I don't have a historian's account of Roosevelt's visit to Ellerbe, but locals have told me that she didn't stay overnight. According to the story relayed to me, she rested for a little while in room 4 as her party was passing through town. If this is not an accurate presentation of the facts, perhaps someone familiar with this bit of history will correct me.

Ellerbe locals still talk about Eleanor Roosevelt's visit. Last month Lottie Ussery of Ellerbe celebrated her 91st birthday. According to the local paper, Mrs. Ussery's claim to fame is that "she was secretary at Ellerbe Springs during the time that Eleanor Roosevelt visited Ellerbe." Decades later, the fact that a famous person paused for a few minutes in Ellerbe still generates buzz.

We all tend to get excited when we have contact with famous people. I know someone who had a summer job at a restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia as a student and she was thrilled that she once served lunch to Robert Redford. I know someone else who was elated that she ran into Julia Roberts on a city street. As a teenager I got to meet Jimmy Carter in the White House Rose Garden and I still remember the event vividly. (If I live to be 91 is that the fact that will make the paper?)

If we get so excited over brief encounters with celebrities you would think the followers of Christ would be ecstatic over a constant spiritual reality in their lives. According to John 14:23-24, God makes God's home with those who love the Lord. We're not talking about a chance encounter of a few moments with an earthly star. We're talking about the almighty God of the universe making God's own dwelling place with those who love the Lord.

That's a reality worth staying excited about. Do we live like we believe it to be true?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Why I love and don't love Mother's Day

As a son, I love Mother's Day. I have a great mother and I love her and I will tell her these things on the second Sunday in May. As a pastor, however, I confess that I don't like Mother's Day because it is a day that is more hurtful than joyous for many.

I think it was 21 years ago when I was an associate pastor in Texas that I had to handle the recognition of mothers in worship on Mother's Day. The senior pastor was absent and I had been told specifically how to handle the task of honoring mothers in keeping with the tradition of that church. Each mother was to receive a flower and I was to read a sentimental poem about the greatness of mothers.

As instructed, I asked the mothers to stand and the flowers began to be distributed as I began to read the poem. But, only seconds into the flower distribution and the reading of the poem, the church organist on the front pew sat back down and began to sob uncontrollably. Her obvious grief could be heard all through the sanctuary. Her son had died a little less than a year before. Smiles evaporated and tears began forming in the eyes of many in that place of worship as we all connected with the sorrow of one mother.

In my faith tradition many churches, on Mother's Day, recognize the oldest mother, the youngest mother and the mother with the most children. I've never quite understood what was being honored in this practice. Why do these mothers deserve to be singled out above others? How does the age, youth or number of children of a mother merit special recognition? And what about the mothers like that church organist for whom Mother's Day, rather than being a day of celebration, is a day of intense sadness? Should these mothers be ignored?

As a senior pastor I have never followed the typical pattern of recognition on Mother's Day. For many years I asked worshippers who were either mothers or who were born of a mother to stand. Of course everyone stood. I then pointed out that all of us were touched in some way on Mother's Day and for many it is a very difficult day for a host of reasons. I always encourage the congregation to be sensitive to and supportive of those for whom Mother's Day is hard. Often I have made available copies of articles written by mothers and others who had a tough time on Mother's Day.

Over the years I have known numerous regular worshippers who make a point not to go to church on Mother's Day because it is just too hard for them. I am well aware that the second Sunday in May is a joyous celebration for many families. But I also know that Mother's Day really hurts for many. The family of God must attempt to effectively and equally "rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15, TNIV).

It is interesting that the mother who inspired the creation of Mother's Day, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, was a crusader for positive social change. As an expression of her love for Christ she organized Mother's Day Work Clubs that raised money to help needy people obtain medications they could not afford and promoted peace during the Civil War and healing between the North and South after the war. When her daughter succeeded in establishing Mother's Day as a national observance, the younger Jarvis was appalled that the day established in honor of a woman devoted to social change quickly became a day of profit for flower retailers and greeting card sellers.

I wonder if recovering some of the spirit of Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis in our Mother's Day observances might make them a little less painful for many.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reasonless love

Above is a picture of Maxie, a dog belonging to my wife, Terri. I read an article by Mark Galli entitled "Love Needs No Reason" at christianitytoday.com and it reminded me of Maxie. The above picture may not do this dog justice—she may be even, um, less pretty than this photo indicates. Frankly the consensus of Terri’s friends and family members is that Maxie is, well, ugly.

One of Terri's friends, Bruce, works at Brunswick Hospital. Some years back he asked Terri if he could have a picture of Maxie. Terri asked why he wanted such a photo and Bruce explained that the hospital were having an ugliest dog contest and he was pretty sure that he could win with a picture of Maxie.

I think it was sometime last year that my father called Terri and expressed his sympathy to her. Terri wanted to know why he was expressing sympathy and he explained that he had seen a news story that the world’s ugliest dog died and so he was sorry to hear that Maxie passed away. (Maxie was and is fine, by the way.)

Let me tell you how Terri came to have Maxie. This dog wasn’t a stray that showed up at the house and hung around. Terri chose this dog on purpose. She even paid good money for it. A few years ago she took a notion that she wanted a lapdog and she went over to the pound. Maxie was a puppy then and she came over and peed on Terri’s foot. So Terri kept her.

Obviously she did not pick Maxie because of her great beauty. She did not pick her because she was nice to her when they met. Yet, even though she had no apparent reason for it, Terri loved and still loves Maxie. That dog sleeps curled up against Terri.

God’s love for us is sort of like that. God doesn’t love you because you are really pretty or smart or for any other fine attribute that you possess. God even loves us and sacrificed himself for us in spite of the fact that we have all peed on his foot as it were. God loves us for no reason at all. God’s love does not need a reason.

And that’s the way it’s supposed to be with our love for others. Our love must be reasonless because God’s love is reasonless.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

'The Blind Side' and 'The Soloist'

I did not get to see The Blind Side in theaters. I know, I know, I missed out. I'll definitely check it out when it is released on DVD.

I did hear the basics of the true story of The Blind Side in an interview with the family at the center of it. In a nutshell, Leigh Ann Touhy and her family take in a homeless young man named Michael Oher. They lovingly raise Oher as part of the family and he becomes a college football All-American and a first round draft pick in the NFL. It is a great, inspirational story.

There was another movie released in 2009 based on a true story of someone attempting to help a homeless person. This one is entitled The Soloist and it did not do as well at the box office nor did it generate the buzz of The Blind Side. A few weeks back I picked up a previously viewed copy of The Soloist for $1 at a video store that was going out of business. I watched it last night and it too is a great story.

The story begins with Steve Lopez, a writer for the L.A. Times, encountering a homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers who was playing a violin with only two strings. It turns out that Ayers was once a student at the famed Juilliard School but he was living on the streets when Lopez found him. From there a friendship develops that takes many twists and turns. It is a relationship through which both men are transformed for the better.

I'm guessing that The Soloist did not generate the hoopla of The Blindside mostly because it does not have a storybook ending. Oh, don't get me wrong. It is a great ending--an uplifting ending. But Ayers does not move from the streets to become a successful musician in an orchestra somewhere. However, he does move to a much better place than he was when Lopez first found him. But then, in a very real sense, Lopez was also moved to a better place than where he was before he met Ayers.

From what I experienced in viewing The Soloist and from what I heard in an interview of the Touhys both of these movies are worth seeing. They both remind those of us who are not poor that genuine, loving friendships with those who are poor can make a difference for the better in our world. And that's a great lesson.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Even if we lose everything

It hit me afresh last night. I noticed that I was a couple of items short for a crock pot recipe that I wanted to do today. So I drove to Wal-Mart at 8:00 p.m. and found a parking lot that was jaw-droppingly empty. Inside there were virtually no customers in sight. I did not expect the place to be booming at 8:00 on a Thursday night, but you would have thought it was 3 in the morning. It was truly surreal.

I continue to hear story after story from business owners whose business is way off. I continue to notice the unprecedented length of the foreclosure listings in the local paper. Our food pantry continues to run out of food hours sooner than it used to in the monthly distributions.

The economy continues to be really, really bad in these parts.

The conventional wisdom is that a resort community like this one is the first to go into a recession and the last to come out of it. Much of our economy is dependent on people taking vacations, buying beach houses and retirees adding a deck or a sun room to their place. When people are worried about the future they don't spend much if any money on such things. We've been feeling the pinch in a serious way for several years now.

The empty parking lot and vacant aisles at Wal-Mart last night made me think of Habakkuk 3:17-19a:
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the
vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though
there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice
in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my
strength ... (TNIV)

In the agrarian culture in which these words were written they depicted a situation of losing everything, economically speaking. It would be sort of like someone saying today:

Though my bank account and my wallet are empty, though my
cupboards are bare and I can't buy any food, though the bank repossesses my car and forecloses on my house, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength.

Can we join Habakkuk in such a statement of faith? I do not mean for a moment to diminish the very real pain that many in this area are experiencing in these days. But it is precisely because of such pain that it is a good time to ask ourselves, is the Lord truly our strength? If so, then is it possible for us to be joyful even in these days?

While he was in chains, Paul wrote, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:12-13).

These are hard times in these parts and there is much heartache associated with them. And it is in these times that we must draw on the deep resources of our faith for strength. Through the mysterious wonder of our connection with Christ the Bible indicates that we can be joyful in our Savior even if we lose everything.

Do we believe this?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Someone(s) tried hard to hide this story from you

It really bugs me that I can't find it. I thought I knew where it was but I was wrong and I just don't have time to hunt anymore. If anyone actually reads this entry maybe you can help me find it.

I was looking for the portion of Timothy B. Tyson's book entitled Blood Done Sign My Name in which he recounts how he had a really tough time time obtaining the historical documents that would help him to tell the story of a very dark chapter of North Carolina history. I don't remember all the details now, but I remember enough to say that it is obvious to me that someone or some group does not want for this story to be told.

If I remember correctly, Tyson went to Oxford, North Carolina, where this bloody episode unfolded, and discovered that the documents had been removed from the spots they should be. Newspaper issues for the period in question were missing from the library and, as I recall, from the newspaper office as well. At the state archives in Raleigh the pertinent documents were gone.

He went to the police department in Oxford and inquired about the documents and he was told they were lost or destroyed. If I have this right, as he was leaving, he noticed some stairs leading to a basement at the police department. He went down them and found the door unlocked and entered. In the room behind that door he found some old files, including one containing the newspaper clippings of the period in question. He took the file, copied the documents and returned it. Later he returned to that basement and the file was gone. After he completed a Masters thesis on this story and donated it to the public library in Oxford, he returned and found that someone had torn out the pages recounting the ugliest part of the story.

Again, I am obviously fuzzy on the details and I am sure that someone out there can point me to the page number of Blood Done Sign My Name that can help me to get it right. But it is abundantly clear that some individual or group does not want for you to know this story, which is exactly why you should read Blood Done Sign My Name. The movie based on the book was released yesterday and you should see that too. But you need to read the book. There is a lot more in the print version and this story needs to be known and remembered so that we might learn from our mistakes.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Females preach in the Bible so they should preach in our churches

"Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided." (Judges 4:4-5, TNIV)

"Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Akbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the New Quarter." (2 Kings 22:14, TNIV)

"In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy ..." (Acts 2:17, TNIV cf. Joel 2:28)

"Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied." (Acts 21:8-9, TNIV)

In the biblical sense, prophesying is proclaiming a message from God. Preaching is all about proclaiming a message from God. Prophesying is preaching. Above are some of the biblical instances of females being called prophets. In other words, we have passages in the Bible that identify females as preachers. Because females preach in the Bible they should be allowed to preach in our churches.

It really is that simple. I am convinced that those who still bar females from preaching do so based on cultural norms rather than biblical teaching. There is just no getting around the fact that the Bible says women proclaimed the word of God and that's preaching.

I once heard a leading evangelical who opposes female preachers say that there is some debate about what exactly the biblical concept of prophecy is all about. I found his analysis terribly flawed. While the exact expression of biblical prophecy varies widely, at a basic level, the fact remains that prophecy is the proclamation of the word of God and that's preaching.

But there is a larger issue. Even that leading evangelical goes so far as to say there is a debate about the meaning of the biblical concept of prophecy. Again, I find his analysis flawed, but even he acknowledged there is a debate.

Okay, we have gifted and dedicated females in our society who believe God has called them to preach. Should those females be disqualified from responding to that calling based on an acknowledged debatable point of biblical interpretation? Again, I don't consider the matter debatable--prophecy is preaching and so females in the Bible preached. But for those who take the other side of this issue I think it is dangerous to bar a whole class of humanity, comprising half the population of the planet, based on a "debatable" point.

It is a serious thing to interfere with a calling from God. Better to let each person answer to God for his or her own calling.

I bring this up because
Baptist Women in Ministry is promoting the Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching this month. You let your sons preach. How about following the rest of Acts 2:17 and let your daughters preach too.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The biggest betting day of the year

Here is the first definition of the word gamble at dictionary.com: "to play at any game of chance for money or other stakes." In this sense of the word I consider gambling a violation of biblical teaching. No, there is no verse in the Bible that specifically says, "Thou shalt not gamble." But betting on games of chance is about placing one's faith in a jackpot rather than Jesus and he said that you cannot serve both God and money (Mat. 6:24).

This is why I have never bought a lottery ticket and I hope you never do. I have never gambled at one of the Sweepstakes places that are becoming as prevalent as grains of sand in our area. Super Bowl Sunday is upon us, the biggest betting day of the year, and I will not be putting any money on the game. Playing games of chance for money is a poor investment that can become addicting and the practice cuts against the grain of biblical teaching.

But there is another sense in which we are all gamblers. Here is definition number five of the word "gamble" at dictionary.com: "to take a chance on; venture; risk." In this sense we all place our bets every day. We bet the moments of our lives on a way of living. On the verge of the biggest betting day of the year it is a good time to ponder where we are betting our lives because we are all placing that bet in every moment that we draw breath.

In Luke 5:11 we learn that the first disciples to follow Jesus "left everything and followed him" (TNIV). They bet it all on following Jesus. Is he worth that sort of gamble?

Yes, he is.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Early American Baptists and the separation of church and state

There remains some debate today as to whether the founders of this nation truly supported the notion of the separation of church and state. On that question, let it be stated clearly that all of the founders did not agree that church and state should be separate but those who did believe that church-state separation was the only way to properly safeguard religious liberty won the day. But my purpose here is to point out that, regardless of what the founders believed, evangelicals at the founding of this nation, Baptists in particular, adamantly affirmed the complete separation of church and state.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, there was great concern in Virginia about a perceived decline of morality. In response, in 1784, Patrick Henry introduced "A Bill for Establishing a Provision for the Teachers of the Christian Religion," a general tax to be used to support the teaching Christian principles. Evangelicals in the state, led by Baptists, came out strongly against the proposal and it was eventually defeated. In the course of the battle over this legislation, James Madison sent a letter to James Monroe in which he praised Baptists for "standing by their avowed principle of the complete separation of church and state."

In 1786 Virginia Baptists sought the repeal of an act that, following a pre-Revolutionary pattern, formed some connections between the Episcopal Church and the state. John Leland, the foremost leader of Baptists at that time, penned the petition of the Baptist General Committee opposing the act and in it he said the legislation was "a Bitumen to Cement Church and State together: the foundation for Ecclesiastical Tyranny and the first steps towards and Inquisition." In response, nearly all of the provisions of the bill were dismantled. According to Hamiliton Eckenrode, this Baptist led legislative effort "definitely marks the separation of Church and state in Virginia."

In the case of the bill related to the Episcopal Church, Baptists, led by John Leland, opposed a more formal religious establishment. But it should be noted that, beyond their resistance to formal establishments, Leland and his fellow Baptists believed the complete separation of church and state to be the only proper way to safeguard religious liberty. Leland pointedly called "blending ... religion and politics together" an "evil."

Baptists fought for church-state separation in part because of fresh memories of days when they were fiercely persecuted for their religious convictions and practices. But, in their typical pattern, Baptists ultimately stood by the principle of the separation of church and state because they believed the Bible told them to do so. John Leland demanded that someone show him "an instance where Jesus Christ ... or the apostles ... ever gave orders to or intimated that the civil powers on earth ought to force people to observe the rules and doctrine of the gospel." Leland, of course, knew that no such biblical example exists.

The debate will likely continue as to whether or not the founders supported the separation of church and state with many evangelicals of recent times taking the side against separation. But no one can make the historical case that Baptists of the early days of this nation opposed separation. Indeed, Baptists were perhaps the most vocal group calling for the complete separation of church and state. Baptists of today would be wise to continue their heritage as defenders of religious liberty through church-state separation.