Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Were The Moderates Partly Right?

Now there's a question to ponder.

Wait. Don't throw that tomato.

I am a committed inerrantist. The conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention has had my full support.

At the same time I have many, many wonderful moderate friends. I love them deeply and dearly as brothers and sisters in Christ and enjoy great fellowship with them. At age 55, no one is going to tell me who I can associate with along life's journey. Many of these "moderates" are really as conservative theologically as I am, but just may not use the same words. Lots of them probably have even more passion about sharing Christ than I possess.

The 1980's and 90's were years of tremendous upheaval in our convention. Clearly, changes had to be made to get us back to a more Biblically-grounded, evangelistic-hearted, mission-focused stance. Yet many good and decent people were hurt.

Lots of moderates were labeled and libeled and had their reputations besmirched and saw their careers damaged. Of course it cuts both ways. Conservatives were ridiculed and maligned, too. A deep divide resulted. I've been convinced for some time that a mighty move of God and an awesome revival could sweep this nation if these 2 sides would come together, even now,in a posture of humble contrition. Maybe there would never again be much affiliation organizationally but there could be apology and confession and repentance and reconciliation relationally. What a message that would send to a watching world. What a demonstration of the spirit of Christ. Seems like John 13:35 touches on this.

When all the denominational conflict broke out almost 30 years ago, and it soon became evident that the conservative viewpoint would prevail, the moderates made some predictions.

I don't know if these days they are sitting back saying "we told you so" or not. And it's certainly by no means confirmed that their warning prophecies have come true. I hope that they will not.

There is a feeling in the air, though, however vague, that something's just not quite as it should be. Were the moderates good prognosticators those many years ago? Is it wrong to even ask that question? We better ask it.

Were they partly right about the long-term future of our convention? And is there time to forestall their gloomy assessment from way back then? It may be that we'll unwittingly lend unnecessary credibility to their dire forecasts unless some course corrections are made.

They said, for example, that the controversy that erupted in 1979 was not really about scripture and inerrancy but about politics and control. The suggestion was that all the flap over the terms inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy was simply a smokescreen for those seeking to wrest dominance in the denominational power structure.

I didn't believe that then, and I don't believe it now. We had to take a strong, definitive stand on the authority of God's Word. The teaching in our schools, which would affect the future crops of preachers in our pulpits, was leaning too far toward the liberal and would eventually, if left unchecked, render our churches lifeless. Something had to be done to change our institutions. Church historians will probably debate for decades on whether what was done and how it was accomplished was the best approach, but nevertheless sincere men acted to rescue a denomination from slowly sinking into the abyss of theological mediocrity and cold, powerless congregations.

But 30 years later, look around. The battle over the Bible was won. Our seminaries are in terrific shape. But we've got to honestly face something. There has been, for some time, the perception out there that a small group has been making most of the decisions. That power is concentrated in the hands of a few who expect to be just blindly trusted to know and do what's best. That everything is cut and dried. That criticisms or complaints are not welcome. Hence, for instance, that discussion time on the convention floor should be kept to the barest minimum. Trustee appointments must go only to those who toe the most rigid of lines. You gotta ask--in a house now full of conservatives, what are we so afraid of? The tapping of Frank Page for the presidency in 2006 and his reelection this year do offer encouragement that perhaps there's going to be an opening up of the process. The vote on the BFM motion gives hope, too.

They said back then that this whole conflict was just a preachers' fight. They insisted that laypeople were not interested in all this fussin' and feudin' over doctrine but wanted to get on with kingdom business and missions, and we pastors were holding things up. We were wasting valuable time, it was thought. We were told that folks in the pews couldn't care less about all the bickering but just wanted peace and harmony and, especially, results in world outreach.

Guess what? Turns out, 30 years later, that the ones tending to dominate in convention leadership are preachers. Usually of the megachurch variety. More often than not, it's preachers standing at the floor microphones at the annual session. Each June, pastors still preach and holler and shout, somehow fearful that liberalism is "comin' back", and preachers debate each other on the finer points of theological discourse while laypeople sit out there wondering why, with all this heat and bluster, we're baptizing less people and not sending out enough missionaries. Average folks in the pews must wonder what all the fuss is about and why we can't seem to get on with the mission.

Can anyone remember the last time a layperson was president of the SBC? It just might be refreshing and transformative if we elected some strong, wise, godly laypeople to our highest offices for a few cycles. Persons with fresh, creative, out-of-the-box, marketplace, non-ministerial thinking. Back home, in our pulpits, we preach that all in the body are equal and of great value(1 Corinthians 12) and have gifts to celebrate and share, not just the pastors. We could act like we really believe that by giving more of our layfolks major leadership posts. We preachers could learn some things from them if we'd release our grip on the top slots.

They said that we would ultimately turn inward and end up fighting each other. Ouch.

Okay. Maybe there is a sociological principle at work here. Group dynamics studies tell us that when an organization feels like it has won over its major threats, it tends to take it easy and starts looking at inside stuff and ends up getting picky and irritable. Bubbles of conflict develop. With no external "enemies" to deal with, energy starts getting used up in internal squabbles. Anyone else noticed what's been happening in the SBC the last few years?

At first it was the liberals. Sure, something had to be done there. But then it was the moderates. Next it was the Calvinists. Now it's the Charismatics. Who are we going to slug it out with next? What group among us will next be made to feel that it is no longer needed or wanted? Who will be left after awhile? Probably just someone to turn off the lights.

This protracted navel-gazing and infighting is going to distract us and divert our momentum, and just might do us in as a cooperating body. All the suspicion and the "with us or with them" mentality, that we deplore so much in our individual congregations, could cripple us. Our internal struggles could so weaken us that we lose our stature and significance on the stage of Kingdom advance and world evangelization. You know it's true--a church can experience one split and survive, but when it keeps going through ruptures and fractures, it's in real jeopardy. Could that happen as well in our larger body? You bet. God doesn't absolutely have to have the Southern Baptist Convention, you realize.

They also said that we would probably become more and more narrow. Hmm.

The vibes I sense nowadays lead me to think that we are devolving from a bold, positive, conservative, evangelical, cooperative position to a kind of rigidity, almost an exclusive, narrow fundamentalism. Regrettably, we're often known more for what we are against than what we are for in this world.

Seems like it's not enough anymore to believe in Biblical inerrancy and the virgin birth and the deity of Christ and substitutionary atonement and the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the second coming of our Lord. Now everybody also has to think just alike on secondary and tertiary doctrines. Same view on the Millenium. Same perspective on spiritual gifts. There's no room for compromise or warm, collegial dialogue or agreeing to work together as loving partners on the main thing despite minor differences in theology or methodology. The impression is given that we all must walk in lock step, even though a lot of kneecaps and ankles and heels are sore and aching. Ties and connections with like-minded evangelical groups, zealous about reaching the nations for Jesus in these last days, are minimized or even severed just at the very time when we most need to be linked in high energy, frontline ministry to impact the world.

Indulge me. Honest questions: why do we all have to think alike on every single thing in order to cooperate together in God's work? And why are we bashing some people in our midst, denigrating them as rebels and whiners, who dare to speak up when they see something amiss and see us heading too far in a rightward drift when we well remember what it was like to be so labeled and misunderstood a few decades ago when we spoke up and warned of a leftward drift?

Finally, they said that sooner or later a lot of young people would leave. The prediction was that the rigidity would force many of the brightest and best in the next generation to depart. I don't know about you, but I sometimes hear the doors slamming shut and sometimes just quietly closing. A lot of sincere, dedicated younger pastors are tired of not having much of a voice. Some are fed up with a snail's pace bureaucracy. Many of those guys who are theologically sound and intellectually robust are weary(just when we need their passion and zest) from internecine battles over minor doctrinal points. There are younger men and women on fire with eagerness to try bold, new, innovative missiological strategies to reach a rapidly changing culture that's passing us by but they feel rejected when they speak up. It looks like an awful lot of these younger persons that we reared in our SBC churches and nurtured and helped to hear God's call are now moving on to other venues.

I praise the Lord for the concern and vision of Drs. Jimmy Draper and Morris Chapman a few years ago as they saw the rushing freight train-like challenge of this possible impending draining of a vast reservior of potential. More needs to be done to stem the tide of a large exit of younger disciples who are looking for more effective ways to do ministry in these climactic times than are currently offered in our present denominational structure. Many of these young people are far more willing to sacrifice than we ever were. They just want to do it in cutting edge ways that will impact the culture they know all too well.

So...were the moderates partly right? With hindsight, was their insight a bit of foresight?

You decide.

I love our great old convention so very much. Always have. I want to see us not just survive, but thrive.

Put down that tomato. Let's think and pray. With some adjustments, our best days as Baptists could be just ahead.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Parable Of The Croaking Frogs

Found this old, familiar, been-around-the-block story in a church newsletter. Enjoy, reflect, pass on...

A farmer came to town and asked the owner of a restaurant if he could use a million frog legs. The proprietor asked where he could find so many frogs.

"I've got a pond at home just full of them", the farmer replied. "They drive me crazy night and day."

After they made an agreement for several hundred frogs, the farmer went back home. He came back a week later with 2 scrawny frogs and a foolish look on his face. "I guess I was wrong," he stammered. "There were just two frogs in the pond, but they sure were making a lot of noise!"

The next time you hear a lot of noise about how bad things are at church, just remember: it may be nothing more than a couple of chronic complainers who have little to do but grouch and croak!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Disappearing Act

I'm intrigued by how Jesus would sometimes disappear right in the middle of ministry occasions.

There were moments when everything seemed to be going well and suddenly He was gone. Or there were episodes where He got in trouble and just vanished.

You see it in Mark 1:35, where He pulled away from everyone to go pray and commune with the Heavenly Father. It shows up in Luke 4:29-30 when, in Nazareth, He is rejected by some hometown synagogue worshippers who angrily take Him outside of town to throw Him off a cliff. He escapes. That same kind of thing happens in John 7:30 and 8:59 and 10:39.

Another example of this phenomenon can be found in John 5:13 where Jesus slips through a crowd and is gone just after miraculously healing a man at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. That case is really interesting. We wonder why our Lord would just take off like that after doing such a good deed, and a supernatural one at that. Some Bible teachers believe that He removed Himself so as not to get tangled up in a wave of compliments and commendations. Others feel that He quietly left the scene to keep from getting enmeshed in a barrage of criticisms and complaints from the Jewish leaders upset over His daring to heal somebody on the Sabbath. Both of those possibilities may be true. The ego of Jesus wasn't dependant on accolades and pats on the back and recognitions for its strength. Nor did He find it necessary to subject His energy and dreams and vision to verbal poundings from irritable, negative individuals.

All of this has got me thinking. Are there times when we ought to disappear for awhile? Certainly.

Like Jesus, we need to carve out time to get away from the stress and busyness of everyday life for prayer and reflection and breathing room, for example. Periods of silence and solitude and intercession can do wonders in our lives. And surely when we are in jeopardy, in our case spiritually, from temptation, we should flee.

We can learn, too, from our Lord not to let ourselves get trapped in the twin perils of accepting excessive praise or being victimized by ugly faultfinders. Don't get me wrong. We all need words of encouragement. We can all benefit from occasional constructive criticism. But to stand around and wait for our fix of flattering remarks and kudos, or to allow ourselves to be held hostage in our spirits by someone's venomous words can harm us in terms of motivation and drive.

By the way, one day we will really be able to disappear, and reappear, at will, like Jesus could in His resurrection body(Luke 24:31, John 20:19). Our changed bodies will be like His, with supernatural capabilities, free to move about at the speed of thought. What an awesome future will be ours!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

By Life Or By Death

It's very liberating to realize that even in the hardships and frustrations of old age and approaching death, a believer can still bring honor to Christ.

I was reminded of that one Sunday evening toward the end of my sermon.

While I was preaching from John 17:1 on glorifying God, the Spirit prompted me to call attention to John 21:18-19 as an additional reference. In that passage, the resurrected Jesus is restoring Peter and challenging him to resume a ministry that now will be even more important. But the Lord makes a sobering prediction: "When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted, but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus is painting a word picture here of the type of death that Peter would eventually die. A death, by the way, that would end up bringing glory to God.

Let's be clear. This disciple did ultimately die a very unpleasant, painful death that perfectly fulfilled this verbally visual prophecy of Jesus. Tradition says that Peter died by crucifixion. To be exact, he was crucified upside down out of respect for his Lord. After 30 years of apostolic ministry, he died a martyr's death.

Probably few if any of us will be called on to end our earthly journey like that. But the Lord showed me something. I don't think it's stretching this gripping saying of Jesus if we take it as a metaphorical application for our own lives as God's children.

When we're young, we feed and dress ourselves. We're independent. We make our own decisions and get up and go when and where we like. If we live long enough, however, we get old and the probability is strong that we'll not think as clearly. We'll become more dependant on others, even for the very necessities of life. Pain will increase. We'll be restricted and limited. Finally death will show up. We have no idea what form our exit will take.

This word of Jesus assures the Christian, though, that somehow even in the midst of dementia, nursing homes, arthritis, or wheelchairs, we can still bring glory to Christ. Until we breathe our last, there is the potential for our experiences to honor Him. I don't know how. That's His business.

I just want to be sure that my life now is pleasing to Him. He'll take care of His plan for me when my mind is no longer sharp and my body can no longer do what it once did. I'm in mighty good company on this, since Paul expressed the same sentiment in Philippians 1:20.

Monday, June 18, 2007

I'm Proud Of You, Ryan

I'm quite proud of my oldest son today.

For 2 reasons.

First, he celebrated his very first Fathers' Day Sunday. Little Micah is almost 9 months old now, and Ryan, at age 26, has been a terrific Dad. It's been a thrill watching him step into that role and fill it with ease and delight. He's gonna be a nurturing father and my grandson is surely going to know that he's loved and cared for and protected. Ryan is a dutiful husband to Christie and helps her so much. They are soulmates...and a tremendous team. You can't avoid seeing the obvious deep affection they have for each other. It's in their eyes. Micah is more blessed than he can realize now.

But I also rejoice this day because over the weekend the three of them moved into their new home. They've been in the process of buying it for months, and finally sold their last residence recently.The new house is a beautiful place with a great front porch, lots of room, a big garage, and a huge yard. It's somewhat secluded, too. Many trees. Micah will have loads of fun growing up there!

Part of the reason for my pride over this today is that it confirms again for me that Ryan is a young man with initiative. He's always demonstrated that. He's disciplined and focused. He has vision and goals. Pardon me for saying it, but I believe he's gonna go places one day! I love him deeply. He's a hard worker, and I'm sure that he and Christie will have that new house looking like a palace! I'm equally certain that they'll use their new dwelling as a place of hospitality and ministry. That's their pattern already.

Keep dreaming big dreams, son. And keep your eyes on Jesus. There's no limit to what God might do with you!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ruth Graham

I am saddened today by the news of the death of Ruth Graham, the wife of evangelist Billy Graham.

I'm certainly happy for her in that she is now released from all the physical agony and pain of the last several years, and is in the presence of Jesus and her loved ones gone before. But I can't help grieving over the void created by the loss of this faithful Christian servant.

Those who know me are aware of my deep and longstanding love and admiration for Dr. Graham. I've watched his televised crusades since I was a little kid. I've actually attended 6 or 7 of those events, and believe me, they were all thrilling. On two occasions I had the privilege of shaking his hand, and would delight even now if I had the opportunity, just for 30 minutes, to sit with him and convey what his life and ministry have meant to me. I've read his books. I always sorta wanted to be like him when I was a younger preacher. A lot of you have heard my wife's infamous "honeymoon story" that connects with Dr. Graham in that while we were in the first few days of our wedding trip, I took time out one night in the motel room to watch an hour of the 1975 Albuquerque crusade on television, much to her consternation! This evangelist's voice, personality, message, passion, and love for God and people have greatly impacted me for decades. I have tremendous respect and affection for him.

And that has always extended to his wife.

This thin, wiry lady has been a model of grace and inner beauty. The daughter of missionaries, she grew up overseas. She met Billy Graham at Wheaton College and married this man who would ultimately be perhaps the greatest preacher in history. She wrote several books. Her greatest contribution to the Kingdom, though, may have been in her willingness to stay at home in the North Carolina mountains and love and rear the couple's 5 children, freeing the renowned evangelist to travel the world for extended periods proclaiming the Gospel. How incredibly lonely it must have been for her at times. How difficult it must have been to raise all those kids, with all the normal issues and problems of childhood and adolescence, all by herself. Yet she faithfully stood behind her man, praying for him and keeping up the home in his absence.

She could be feisty. She was firm. I always felt that she exuded calm and composure and warmth and graciousness. She loved the Bible, her family, and her Lord. Her convictions were strong. Her patience surely was immense.

We can learn some lessons from Ruth Graham.

Her life's trajectory reminds us that even God's greatest servants suffer. Her fall from a tree in 1974 led to the painful, crippling osteoarthritis that eventually drove her to a wheelchair and finally to the bed. We wonder once again about fairness and all that, but the reality is that no one escapes hardship and adversity, and some end up hurting more, seemingly, than others. Those who've labored for the Master come in for their share of difficulty and testing and loss, too. Sometimes it's physical. Sometimes it's emotional. It might be relational or professional. Think of any significant godly Bible character and see if you don't find some heartache or suffering in his or her biography. Mrs. Graham sacrificed a lot for the sake of the Gospel and yet still went through immense trial in her final years. It just happens. All in God's providence, but it happens.

Certainly her journey highlights the beauty and value of marriage. Hers was destined to be a little different than the normal marital pattern, but then is there really such a thing as a normal marriage? Every couple's is unique. She expressed her abiding love by devoted service. When all is said and done, that is the pathway for any marriage to not just survive, but thrive. It goes without saying that her relationship with her husband should be a model for those of us in younger generations of faithfulness, loyalty, stick-to-itiveness, teamwork, sacrifice, and reliance on prayer. Not quitting when it gets tough. Not checking out if there's not warm, fuzzy feelings every single minute.

Mrs. Graham's willingness to serve behind the scenes says something vital to us, too. There is an exciting, glamorous, exhilirating side to the work of mass evangelism. The travel. The media attention. The energy of the crowds. She probably experienced that only rarely. Evidently she saw her role as homemaker, as protector and nurturer of her brood, as effective prayer warrior. She accepted the assignment and carried it out admirably. When rewards are given out in Heaven for ministry that prospered, her arms will be just as full as Billy's. I Samuel 30:24 comes to mind here. So does the example of Philip in Acts 8, who was just as willing to go out into the desert to witness to one man privately as he was to preach publically before great crowds with amazing, attention-grabbing results. Too many in Christian work nowadays crave the spotlight and the cameras and the recognitions and the praise. Too few seem ready to do the menial or the backstage jobs. Lots want to be on the platform and get the pats-on-the-back. Not enough want to do nursery duty or cut the grass or clean up after a church supper since they may not be seen. Ruth lovingly, humbly, unobtrusively kept her family together, and her quiet efforts paid rich dividends in that all 5 of her children, in adulthood, have had ministries of their own.

Our older saints, our Christian soldiers of the previous generation, are slipping away now, going on home. Dr. Falwell on May 15, now Ruth Graham. Many others, too, most lesser-known. They did their work and now they are leaving the stage. What a standard they set for us, not only in what they accomplished but in how they lived. I dread it, but I know the day is going to come, and perhaps soon, when Dr. Graham himself is gonna pass from the scene. Who is going to step up to the plate and keep the work advancing? Who will take their places? Our mandate, our mission remains the same and will stay in force until Jesus comes even though the workers and the soldiers periodically change. Are we ready to fill in the gaps and vacancies created as some go to their rest? What will later history say about us, in our moment of contribution? Will it be able to say of us, as was said of King David, that we "served our generation"(Acts 13:36) before exiting for our rest?

Thank you, Ruth Graham. Frail little lady of 87 who did her best and gave her all.

Surely you've already heard Jesus say, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

It'll be an honor to meet you, one day, over there.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Funeral Thoughts

One morning this week I conducted a memorial service for a gentleman I'd never met.

Occasionally a funeral home will call and ask me to officiate at a service for an individual who didn't have a relationship with a church or a minister. I suppose most pastors get requests like that from time to time.

I always have mixed feelings about speaking at one of these farewells for someone I didn't even know. First off, it's hard to come up with stuff to say when you have little or no information about the deceased. I always like to share personal traits and tidbits and stories and reminiscences at a funeral, to make it more warm and intimate and special. If I wasn't acquainted with the departed one, that's a lot tougher assignment. Not to mention that it's a little scary to think that I might accidently say something that everybody sitting out there knows wasn't true about that person. Or I could unintentionally step on some relational landmine.

On the other hand, presiding over a service for an individual who apparently wasn't a churchgoer gives me an incredible opportunity. I have the chance to share the glorious Gospel with a family as well as lots of their friends who normally are not exposed to presentations of the life-changing good news of Jesus. Precious seed can be sown. A fresh vision can be offered. Hope can be disseminated. The clear plan of salvation can be simply and delicately and respectfully mentioned. I guess it's this privilege and open door that keeps me accepting these requests. It's ministry. That's what I'm called to do. Maybe I can't accept every invitation but it's a joy to step briefly into the lives of people I've never had the pleasure of knowing before and extending help and comfort and grace and truth. God arranges, in His sovereignty, those encounters that offer platforms to communicate the message to folks who never darken the door of a church on Sundays but who do attend funerals for their loved ones.

I gotta tell you, though, that one of the saddest experiences to come out of these types of events for me is when I ask a family to give me some good material to share in the service and they can't think of much if anything to tell me. Sure, they can provide me with dates and jobs and places lived, basic biographical info, but what about memories? Are there no warm stories? You can't remember what you loved most about this person? You can't tell me 3 or 4 things you learned from this individual? What motivated or brought delight or shaped this now departed one?

I tell you, I've had that happen more than once. On one occasion, I sat with a whole family around a table and not one person could remember anything concrete or positive to provide me with some substance and traction for my eulogy. There was just silence, and a lot of blank stares. Maybe that says something about the quality of the life of the deceased individual. Maybe it's an indictment on the paucity of depth in the family relationship. At any rate, it's very sad. Oh, to have lived a life where every close survivor has a thousand beautiful things to say, and the problem then for the minister becomes what has to be left out of his remarks in the interest of time! I certainly long to live in such a way that I've beneficially contributed and made a difference. I yearn to live in such a way that I plant seeds all around me that will bear fruit long after I'm gone. My earnest desire is to create happy mental snapshots in the minds and hearts of my family and friends that will warm them and cheer them after my departure. When I offer my officiating services to a family that suddenly needs a "reverend" and I sense that they don't possess that rich storehouse of happy memories of their husband or spouse or child I'm moved all the more to strengthen and deepen the ties with the folks in my life that are most important.

When the funeral director calls and needs a favor, most of the time I'm gonna say yes. And not just because I want to stay on his good side! Perhaps it's because, as Ecclesiastes 7:2 teaches, you can sometimes learn a whole lot more in the "house of mourning" than you can anywhere else!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Days Of Our Lives

I know you didn't ask. But just in case you might be interested, allow me to tell you about my best and worst days each week.

What got me thinking about this was something that occurred the other afternoon. Vicki and I were in the grocery store together. I was pushing the shopping cart while she was eagerly and happily and animatedly pulling items off the shelves to purchase. I guess I was listless and somewhat spacey. Finally it got to her, and in the checkout line she asked, "What is the matter?" She thought she had done something to offend me. I blurted out, "It's Saturday. I hate Saturdays. It's my worst day of the week."

I've noticed the feeling for years. Even decades.

I get up on Saturday mornings in a good mood, ready to delight in a day of diversion. But by that afternoon, and as evening approaches, a cloud descends. I'm not kidding. A mild wave of blue and sometimes black rolls in and over me. I don't know whether it's anxiety or depression, but it's dark and real and almost palpable. I get uptight. Fidgety. Restless. Sometimes a heavy sense of loneliness envelopes me. Occasionally there is even the sensation of emptiness. It's all very uncomfortable.

I've tried to figure out where it comes from, what precipitates it. I can't nail it down.

Is it simply a practical response to anticipation of the next day, and my concern over all the details of leading and preaching for which I'll be responsible? That could certainly be part of it. I take my ministry very seriously, and always want to be at my best. Or, is it something emotional, deep in my psyche, that I don't even consciously know about or understand? Maybe some baggage from my past, way back in a childhood that was actually quite happy. Some leftover strands of unpleasant feelings about some forgotten painful event. It's possible. I've wondered, too, if it might be a spiritual attack from the Enemy. After all, he knows that on the following morning I'll be opening up the scriptures and proclaiming Christ, who is the ultimate victor over the devil's evil empire. Surely our foe hates to hear about his defeat and enjoys intimidating those who announce it. He has lots of tools to harry and harass God's servants. Is this what's happening? Could be.

All I know is that I wake up on Sundays and the gloomy vibes are gone and I'm excited about the day and look forward to preachin' and greetin' and lovin' on folks where the church gathers.

My best day? My favorite part of the week? This will surprise you. It's Monday. That's the day most other people hate, but I love it. I thrill at getting back into the routine, the groove, the activity. Sunday afternoons and evenings I unwind and slow down and relax with good books or great music or dinner with friends or a nap. But when Monday morning hits I'm pumped and energized and eager to get into life.

So...pray for me on Saturday nights. Ask the Father to lift the fog. And share my unbounded joy as each new work week begins on Mondays and God gives us a fresh start at sowing seed and spreading light.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Celebrity Sympathy, Part 2

Word comes today that Paris Hilton, now back in jail, has had a change of heart.

She's issued a statement, and confirmed in a phone conversation with Barbara Walters, that she will no longer appeal her sentence. She speaks of learning through all this and of growing, of God giving her a new chance. And she's even encouraged the media to redirect its attention from her to more important issues, like the war in Iraq.

I hope it's true. I'm not kidding.

I remain convinced that she has incredible potential to be a positive role model for the youth of her generation. If she can shift her focus from herself to others, and use her charisma and influence and wealth to be a spokesperson and catalyst for meaningful, beneficial changes in society, she just might inspire millions of kids to join her. If she'll use this time of isolation to deepen her soul, and if she'll allow the truth to sink in that life is far more than good looks and partying and being endlessly photographed, she just might have a shot at making a difference with her time on earth.

Seductive poses and camera glare and trying to be a star and pop culture idol and center of attention will all eventually run out of steam as significant purposes for life. Better to learn that lesson now, at age 26. And that thing about actions having consequences? It's good to get that truth nailed down early, too. It's also true that if Paris will let this stint behind bars start the process of molding her into being a giver and not just a taker, the rest of her days will be profoundly different.

I still find myself feeling sorry for her.

Something tells me that with all her fame and fortune and privilege, she's nevertheless had a hard life. I'm wondering, call it idle speculation if you choose, if her mother, Kathy, doesn't bear a lot of responsibility for the way this young woman turned out.

I gather that this mom pushed and prodded her daughter to become a celebrity icon. Getting her in the right school, pampering her, making connections for her, giving her everything she wanted. Granted, all parents want their kids to succeed and shine, but did Kathy go too far in creating this media sensation?

To the extent that this mother pressured Paris to emphasize glamour and external, physical attractiveness rather than inner beauty and character, she misled her. To the extent that she shaped her to desire, above all else, being noticed and adored, she actually harmed her. In other words, Kathy selected all the wrong goals for her daughter. And to somehow lead Paris to think that she would get out of her jam with the law because of her riches and her prominence is despicable.

Why, by the way, did Kathy do all this anyway? Was it really for her daughter, or was mom trying to live her life through her child? How tragic it is to see parents attempting to recreate or redo or correct or enjoy all over again theirown lives through their kids instead of granting their children freedom to choose their personally preferred course and destiny. I saw a photo of Paris as a young girl the other day on TV. I wondered as I looked into her eyes, much more innocent then, just what it was she may have wanted to do with her life as a naive child. What were her hopes and dreams and wishes and ambitions? Were they all shoved aside in the fast moving express train of her mom's priorities for her? Was a little girl's fragile, tender, yearning spirit crushed by someone else using her for their own ends? Maybe, maybe not, but the possibility exists. If true, this would explain why there seems to be this vacuum in the inner self of this outwardly beautiful woman now holed up in a LA jail.

Okay. Forgive me for theorizing and psychologizing. This is, I know, ground that has been covered many times by many others far smarter in these matters than I.

Do allow me, though, to show you 2 instances in the New Testament where mothers got involved big time in the lives of their daughters. One mom had a very shady motivation, the other a very positive one.

In Mark 6:21-28, we get that story of how Herodias pushed her daughter to dance, perhaps seductively, for Herod and his guests at a birthday party. When the king, drunk with pleasure, offered the young girl whatever she wanted as a thank-you gift, she ran to her cold, calculating mother, who obviously dominated her, to find out what she should ask for. Out of her own bitterness and evil designs, mommy ordered that her talented daughter request that John the Baptist be beheaded. The girl made her desire known and the execution happened. Could it be that for the rest of her life Salome wallowed in guilt over the sensual use of her body and the heinous act that she participated in that day? Herodias surely violated her daughter's body that day, and, perhaps worse, trampled on her spirit and her conscience.

An episode with a far better ending is recounted for us in Mark 7:24-30. A Greek woman in Tyre has a demon-possessed daughter and begs Jesus, when he passes through her town, to exorcise the evil spirit. Jesus dialogues with this hurting parent. He appears to be indifferent to her plight, perhaps testing her. Her persistence and humility and faith eventually lead to his granting of her petition, and the young girl is freed and healed of the oppression. In this case, the mother wanted what was best for her daughter...and she went to the right source. The child had her life changed that day, for good.

So, yes, I do feel sorry for Paris Hilton...and for her mother as well. How awesome it would be if both of them came to know, in a personal way, the Jesus who can absolutely transform us.

Can't we turn off all the TV coverage about this dazzling event long enough to pray that someone will share the Gospel with them?

Friday, June 8, 2007

Celebrity Sympathy

I'm really starting to feel sorry for Paris Hilton. I'm not being facetious, either.

I feel sorry for her because she obviously thinks that her only purpose in life is to purr and preen and pose for the paparazzi and adoring fans. She resembles a little child trying to act cute and coquettish to get someone's, anyone's, attention. I get the sense that there is a deep emptiness inside. A real vacuum. An aching loneliness. It's almost obvious. And what happens to that "purpose" she's chosen when her looks fade and she ages?

I feel sorry for her because she is unwittingly transmitting the wrong messages to her generation, and the one coming immediately behind hers. Messages like external beauty being more important than inner attractiveness. Or that actions don't have consequences. Or that good looks and a massive fortune can get you out of messes you've created. The Old Testament King David might could offer her some hindsight counsel on that one. And surely she is giving off vibes that a flamboyant party lifestyle is what generates real happiness.

I also feel sorry for this pampered heiress because it may very well be that her actions are one more contribution to the slow chipping away of the system of law and order in our society. The Apostle Paul suggests in 2 Thessalonians 2 that "the secret power of lawlessness is already at work" in our culture. Something or someone is holding back the full force of its eventual release, which will have a devastating impact. Could it be that we are now seeing the beginning stages, the tip of the iceberg, in the violence and the anti-Christian rhetoric and the swift-moving acceptance of previously unimaginable moral permissiveness in our society that will ultimately lead to a tidal wave of evil? Paris Hilton's initial attempts to duck responsibility for her driving under the influence, and later with a suspended license, and her manuevering to avoid her sentence, and the protests of her fans, and then the quick release from jail to house arrest all fly in the face of justice. Small blows to a fundamental, foundational, longstanding order of fairness and decency and rewards and penalties and social stability, but, blows nonetheless. Repeated chipping and chopping at the system by celebrities and politicians and the rich who think they are somehow above the law all lead to a gradual erosion of order which will lead to chaos which in turn makes conditions ripe for the rise of someone who will promise to restore that order. An Antichrist, maybe? That appears to be Paul's point.

But I mainly feel sorry for Paris because she gives no evidence that she knows Jesus. What a life she is missing! Actually the only real life. Booze and promiscuous sex and media spotlight can never offer the peace and joy and fulfilment that a relationship with Christ can, not to mention the hope of living forever.

Go back to jail, Paris. Serve your time.You'll feel so much better about yourself if you do. Set the right example for millions of kids watching your every move. While you're there, think long and hard. Read John 10:10 in the Bible and give your life to Jesus. Come out after your sentence and help lead the youth of America in becoming the next " greatest generation." A generation that will enjoy legitimate fun but will work to positively transform our society by grappling with the enormous problems that my baby boomer demographic hasn't been able to solve and is bequeathing to you guys.

And forgive us Christians who have talked about you an awful lot but have neglected to pray for you.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

A Tribute To My Dad

It's now been 30 years.

On Tuesday night, June 7, 1977, Vicki and I had just gone to bed. We were only about 2 weeks into a new pastorate in Colonial Heights, VA. Our first one, by the way. The phone rang at a late hour. It was my mother, calling to say that something was terribly wrong with my dad and that the rescue squad was on its way to the small duplex apartment where I had grown up. I could tell from the sound of her voice that things did not look good.

My father had suffered a heart attack years earlier, before I was even born, while he was still a very young man. I assumed now that this was what was happening, again. An empty feeling washed over me. Vicki and I hurriedly got dressed and drove away in the darkness of a late Spring night for the hour and a half trip to Suffolk. As I recall, we made most of that journey in silence. I couldn't talk. So many thoughts raced through my mind.

My mother had also called my pastor brother, Don, who was serving in his first church, in Farmville, VA, at a distance even further away. He and Audrey set out on their long trek. Our younger brother, George, still resided at home and had followed, with Mama, behind the ambulance. I can't begin to imagine what these events must have been like for them, since they were right there watching them unfold.

Vicki and I finally got to Suffolk's Obici Hospital to find Mama and George, sitting alone in that emergency room waiting area, expecting word on daddy's condition. Suddenly, a door flung open and a doctor, a long time family friend, walked out and simply said, "I'm sorry, Frances. He's gone." With that, he turned and left. That was it. A nurse came out and tried to answer some questions and be of help, but there we were, all alone, and the bottom had just dropped out of our world. Talk about a cold loneliness. Daddy was gone. Gone. Alive that morning when we had talked on the phone, but now, gone.

I can't recall now whether Don and Audrey made it just before or just after that pronouncement, but I know we were all in shock. We made our way, well into the wee hours of the morning, back to that little apartment, all 6 of us, plunged into the depths of grief and loss. Back to that tiny residence, so full of the memories of childhood.

The next few days were packed with friends and decisions and reminiscenses. Don and I conducted the funeral at the wonderful First Baptist Church of Suffolk, where we had attended all our lives. We wanted to honor our father in that way. And after all, to him, there were only 2 preachers in the whole world! We did our very best to celebrate his life with our words that Thursday afternoon as beautiful sunlight shone through those sanctuary windows.

Daddy was a simple man. An humble man. Never went to college. Worked hard to provide for his family. He was not a leader in church, could never have gotten up and said anything in front of the congregation, and never was a deacon. I don't think he ever sang in the choir or chaired any major committee. But for years he served as an usher. I'll never forget how proud he was the night he got to meet George Beverly Shea when that renowned Gospel singer came and gave a concert to a packed house at our church. Because Dad was an usher, he got to help seat people for that event! I can't read Psalm 84:10("I would rather be a doorkeeper...") without thinking of my Pop.

More often that not, when Don or I would be called on to pray or preach, even as teens, in our home church or some other congregation, if Dad was in the audience, every few minutes you'd see tears in his eyes. So many times when we would part, he'd say to us, "Preach the Word." He genuinely loved us and would have done anything in the world for us. For the life of me, I don't know how, on his small salary, he ever paid for us to go to college.

Regrettably, I can't remember now any long conversations or deep talks I ever had with my father. There weren't really any camping trips or hunting trips or even much fishing. Maybe deep inside as a small kid I yearned for that, or maybe I didn't. I do know that these days I hunger to have known him better, to have connected more, to have communicated soul-to-soul. Perhaps that's why the words of that doctor in that cold, sterile ER waiting room that June night, "He's gone", are permanently etched in my memory. I can still hear them. Maybe that's why I've spent an awful lot of time since then trying to convince other families not to miss opportunities to really bond, tightly, to their loved ones. Life is so short. It passes so quickly. It can be over in a flash of time. To have known someone, really known them, down to the heart, is a great treasure.

In my book, Dad was a great man. We always felt secure. Loved. Cared for. His gentle smile, his handshake, our lively family discussions about politics around the table in that unbelievably small kitchen, his tooting of the car horn whenever we'd drive beneath an overpass, his insistence on taking us on Saturdays out to Grandma's farm, the homemade vegetable soup he'd often make or the cheese toast on Sunday mornings, the obvious but non-ostentatious love he had for Mama...all these and a thousand other memories I shall cherish 'til my life's end.

If I have accomplished anything of value over these 30 years since he quietly slipped away that warm evening at age 56 with an abdominal aneurysm, it's due in large part to the sacrifices he was willing to make to help me prepare to answer a call that he couldn't have understood or explained theologically but was ready to support with everything he had.

I miss you, Dad. Still, after 30 years. Maybe even more now that I have sons of my own...and a grandson of whom you'd be so very proud. I can just see your eyes sparkle as you'd look at him. I'd give a great deal to be able to sit down and talk with you now, if only for 30 minutes. We've got a lot of catching-up to do.

I'll see you one day, over there. Maybe we'll first glimpse each other in a flower-filled park or beside a lofty, beautiful, flowing fountain just inside a gate in Heaven. I can assure you that I'll be the first to start the hug.

Resources For Spiritual Growth

I always tell people that if they're going to purchase a new Bible for themselves or someone else, they should buy a study Bible.

Having a study edition of God's Word in your home is like possessing a small spiritual library at your fingertips. You not only have the text of scripture, but thousands of explanatory notes to help you understand what you're reading. Over the years you might want to procure a variety of these types of Bibles which will just add to the possibility of increasing your knowledge of the Word.

Granted, study Bibles cost more than regular editions, but that's because you're getting more. If you're gonna put out the money to buy a Bible, why not pay a little extra and get the additional commentary and book introductions and character profiles that a study version provides? It's true that all those notes are not perfect and infallible like the scripture itself is, but they are put together by godly men, for the most part, who have prayed over and wrestled with the text and seek to offer profitable interpretations to us that we might be blessed.

I have some personal favorites that have really benefitted me. Check 'em out:

MacArthur Study Bible(available in both NASB and NKJV)

Reformation Study Bible(ESV)

NIV Study Bible

Nelson's NKJV Study Bible

Life Application Bible(various translations)

I sometimes refer to the New Spirit Filled Life Bible(NKJV). I'm excitedly looking forward now to the October release of The Apologetics Study Bible(HCSB) from Broadman and Holman. It's gonna be loaded with material on how to understand and defend the faith.

So...I encourage you, if you're interested in having some good tools to sharpen your grasp of God's Word, to consider acquiring one or more of these resources. And what better gift to give another believer than something like this?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Thinking About The Future

I was a little disappointed the other night by a response a politician gave to a guestion on a CNN show segment on faith and politics.

Interviewer Paula Zahn asked New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Democratic candidate for president, if he thought much about Heaven. Without any hesitation, he replied "Not really." He went on quickly to imply that he was so busy with day-to-day decisions about solving the problems of the here and now that he just didn't devote a lot of time to considering the celestial.

I think I understand what he was trying to do in that brief exchange. He wanted to communicate that he was vitally engaged in meeting the pressing, urgent needs of his constituents now and could reflect on the "sweet by and by" later. He didn't want to come across as too mystical, as someone with his head in the clouds. He wanted to project an image of pragmatism, of hands-on leadership, of practical service to relieve human suffering and deal with crucial current issues.

Granted, there are some who are "so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good". Preachers and laypeople alike can spend so much time meditating on and discussing the awesome afterlife ahead that they fail to do much to make this world any better. Let's not forget that we still have the creation mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 as our assignment. We also have the Kingdom mission of Matthew 28:19-20 to carry out. There's a good bit to keep us occupied and grounded in the present.

Nevertheless, to not devote any time or attention to our eternal destiny seems strange to me. We're only here a few brief years actually. We'll be there forever. How can we not be curious and fascinated about our future home? How can we keep from occasionally daydreaming about it and asking questions about it and probing the scriptures for details about it? If you're moving from one house to another, or from one city or state to another, or are preparing to travel on vacation or business to some different locale, don't you want to learn as much as possible about it in advance? You're telling me that you don't ponder all that much the place where you're gonna reside for age after age after age? You're telling me that you're a Christian and you love Jesus and yet you give but scant thought to what it's like where He is, and where you'll be with Him for eons to come?

I recall our Lord saying in Matthew 6:19-21 that it's crucial to put a lot of focus on your future home. Paul, too, advises believers in Colossians 3:1-4 to give careful consideration and planning to the above and beyond. In Philippians 3:18-21 he even suggests that since we are already citizens of the heavenly realm, and just "passing through" here, it's actually dangerous to get too attached to stuff in this world.

I'm not picking on Bill Richardson. I sorta like the guy. He expresses himself well and has some good ideas. He's like a lot of politicians, though, of both parties, who talk a lot about the future and how they want to make it better and lead us into it. What I'm saying is that evidently their view of the future doesn't go far enough or deep enough. To be earth-bound and not in touch with the spiritual dimension is to stop short. To try and envision and create a model future while leaving God and eternity on the sidelines is an exercise in futility. Just ask the tower builders in Genesis 11.

Paula's question wasn't a stupid or softball one, Bill. While thinking about immigration reform and taxes and Iraq and climate change, you might want to go back and reconsider her inquiry on this faith issue. And I promise you, Governor, that if you'll get a copy of Randy Alcorn's book, Heaven(Tyndale House Publishers, 2004) and read it, you'll not just think about our coming destiny, you'll yearn for it.

It's my conviction that a Christian who has a real passion for the incredible, exhilirating life to come with its opportunities for never-ending growth, learning, travel, challenging work, creativity, worship, and fellowship possesses an expanded vision for a fuller life and more effective service now. There's something about that passion for eternity(Ecclesiastes 3:11) that excavates more depth in the soul, which leads to a life in the present of richer, stronger character, which in turn results in more selfless and creative problem-solving in the culture around us.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

People Helping

One of the hardest lessons we have to learn in life is that you can't fix everybody.

I guess pastors especially can be stricken with the compulsion to get all situations and individuals staightened out. We take on a messiah complex and feel it's our duty to work hard to eradicate all problems and motivate every single person to do exactly what he's supposed to do. Ministers sometimes put themselves under the burden of thinking they've got to resolve every marriage crisis in the congregation and smooth over all conflicts and restore each backslider.

But all of us struggle with the same obsession. Maybe we exert a lot of energy trying to convince an alcoholic to stop drinking. Perhaps we invest a lot of time in attempting to patch up some couple's marital relationship or in persuading an abusive husband or dad to get help or in pushing another individual to take more initiative in life. Often we find ourselves begging and pleading with family members or friends to start going to church. Maybe we tearfully implore a spouse to end an affair or a rebellious teen to quit drug use or someone angry with us to reconcile.

It's certainly true that we may have a genuine desire to help another person get through or get around some issue. Occasionally, though, our intense quest to rescue springs from an internal need to control seemingly chaotic circumstances so that some anxiety inside us can be reduced. It's even possible that our feverish labors to manage or correct someone else's problem might be an unconscious effort on our part to work through some unfinished stuff in our own life, maybe from many years ago.

Frantically trying to fix others usually is ineffective, however. We end up losing sleep and spilling a lot of sweat and tears for nothing. Does that mean we should refuse to care and be a help? Of course not. With generous doses of both grace and truth , mixed with loving presence, we can attempt to show a troubled person a better way. Ultimately, though, they have to possess a desire to change, and a willingness to work toward that. Regrettably, some persons decide to stay as they are.

Instead of wearing ourselves out playing God, we may have to back off and pray and leave most folks in the Lord's hands. Jesus didn't "fix" Nazareth in Mark 6 nor the rich young ruler in Mark 10. Judas comes to mind, too. Paul couldn't "fix" Demas or Alexander or even some formerly close friends in 2 Timothy 4:9-16. The Apostle couldn't even change young John Mark in Acts 15...but God did, in His timing.

We should lovingly do our best with hurting people and then entrust them to the Father's care. He made them. He knows best.

Reading Tips

Here are some neat and helpful new works:

The new book by pastor/writer R. T. Kendall, Controlling The Tongue(Charisma House, 2007) is full of Biblical examples of both wise and unwise use of our speech and offers guidance in how to use our words in a more godly fashion. Both Energy Zappers(Baker Books, 2007) by Shaun Blakeney and Wallace Henley, and Dealing With The Crazymakers In Your Life(Harvest House Publishers, 2007) by Dr. David Hawkins discuss the types of people who drain us and sap our strength(selfish, angry, complaining, etc. folks) and give scriptural and practical counsel on how to relate to them.

A New Beginning

For me, writing has always been both a chore and a delight.

Because I'm a perfectionist, I struggle to get every word, sentence, and paragraph just right. That can be just as much work mentally as digging a ditch or hoeing a garden is physically.

At the same time, I love to see my thoughts in print and to feel that maybe something I'm penning is going to cause someone else to look at an issue in a different way.

By launching this blog, then, I open myself up to both drudgery and joy. For you, the reader, I hope it will be all joy, with perhaps a little serious thinking every now and then. Thank you for "tuning in" and taking the time to ponder my musings. Feel free to tell others about this spot on the internet dial.

My main goal is that God will be glorified each time I write!