Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lessons On Relationships From The Bethlehem Folks

Could it actually be that the players in the original Christmas story might have insights to offer us about getting along in church today?

I think so.

This disparate cast of individuals, brought together in God's providence and timing to act out significant roles in the real life narrative of the coming of the Messiah into our world, can teach us a great deal about relationships among believers in contemporary congregations.

Take Mary, for instance. She models for us humble submission to God's will(Luke 1:38). When we get more interested in doing what the Lord wants us to do than in carrying out our own personal desires, we start to make progress toward church unity. Most church fights and splits are over preferences rather than convictions. They usually spring from self-centered ambitions to be first or to be right or to be noticed or to be comfortable. This young girl completely yielded up her need for convenience or privacy or ease in order to please God instead of herself. She put aside her agenda so that she could fully serve the Lord and get in on what He was up to at that time. Imagine how many conflicted relationships among the saints could be untangled if the parties would take initiative and sacrificially surrender their rights and whims for the larger good of the fellowship.

Or consider Joseph. This brawny carpenter had a tender side. When he was initially hurt and disappointed at what he thought was his fiance's unfaithfulness he was nevertheless willing to show sensitivity and compassion to her by divorcing her quietly and privately(Matthew 1:19).That sounds to me alot like the spirit of Proverbs 17:9 and 19:11. How we need people in our churches who show mercy when wronged. How we need members who don't blab everything about everybody. Congregations flourish when filled with persons who lavish grace, not condemnation, on those who make mistakes and messes. But it gets even better. When Joseph was presented with the facts about his future wife by divine revelation, he was willing to change his mind(Matthew 1:24). A hefty portion of that attitude in our local assemblies would spark revival and renaiisance, whether we're talking about worship styles, business meetings, or pastor-member interactions!

The shepherds and the wise men illustrate some relational principles, too.

The response of the shepherds to the good news from the angels of Christ's birth reminds us that when there is a common focus there generally will be unity and harmony. Before the supernatural newscast and concert of the heavenly beings in the Judean sky(Luke 2:8-20) it's quite possible that these guys picked at and quarreled with one another. But after that visitation, they came together in remarkable cohesion, first to go see the newborn King, then to spread around the incredible news of His nativity, and finally to glorify and praise the Lord for His awesome gift. Sometimes multiple emphases and interest groups and cliques in a church can so fragment it that it is kept from coming together around a central, passionate purpose. Energy gets drained away by calendar battles and turf wars and continual personal sniping so that worship and evangelism suffer. Nehemiah 4:6 comes to mind here as a necessary corrective.

And what about those wise men? Talk about energy and unity! They traveled an immense distance, followed a mysterious star, and gave lavish, expensive gifts in honor of a little baby. What was the secret of their sacrifice and effort? Simple. They wanted to see Jesus. All those miles and meals on the road and changes in weather and feelings of homesickness and movements toward an uncertain destination came from one priority--yearning to be around Christ. Nuff said. If in our congregations we will hunger to know Him and love Him and obey Him, most if not all of our petty, childish, carnal personality skirmishes will evaporate or be settled in a godly fashion. These travelers(Matthew 2:1-12)stuck together like glue because their focus was on Jesus. And they could stand strong against an external threat(Herod) because they were ablaze with a thirst for Christ and were united in their obedience to the Heavenly Father. I wonder sometimes how many of our fussin', feudin', entertainment-oriented churches would even survive if persecution or economic downturns worsened.

Don't pack away these Christmas characters as you would figurines in a Nativity set December 26. You may need their example and character qualities in 2009.

Have a most wonderful Christmas season. It's a joy serving you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Doing Advent Well

I used to think that John the Baptist was the supreme example of how to do Advent right.

After all, he was the forerunner, the messenger, the advance man for the soon coming Messiah. He was first on the scene with news of the approaching Christ. I felt that if anyone deserved the title of "Mr. Advent" it was surely this strangely dressed but authentic and powerful preacher out in the Judean wilderness.

Not anymore.

You actually have to go back, much further back, to find the guy who seems to best exemplify the spirit of this 4-week season of reflection and expectation and preparation for Christmas that is now upon us. You have to reach back into the Old Testament. You have to go all the way back to Genesis. Long before any of the prophets began predicting the eventual appearance of the Saviour this man was anticipating His arrival.

I'm referring to Abraham, the great patriarch.

In a discussion with Jewish religious leaders who boasted of their ancestral ties to this father of their religion and who sharpely criticized and rejected Jesus, our Lord made a fascinating statement. Picking up on this hostile crowd's use of the name of the founder of their faith, Jesus said, in John 8:56, "Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad."

What the Lord was revealing here was that centuries earlier the patriarch had somehow visionally put it together that sooner or later God was going to send a deliverer. Abraham looked down the corridor of time and came to understand that one day God would do something so big that all of history and destiny would be changed. This Genesis man saw all of this by faith. Perhaps he figured it all out from God's promises and from that whole Melchizedek business and from that matter of the Lord-sparing-Abraham's-son-Isaac-at-the-last-minute-by-providing-a-ram-in-his-place. The patriarch's gradually expanding understanding of the grand sweep of God's unfolding future plan exploded into joy. He saw what would eventually happen only in pieces and fragments but he thrilled and delighted at the prospect.

So he was the original Advent man.

As we today move through these next few weeks we do so with the certain knowledge that the Messiah has already come. We still can use this period, though, for self-examination and repentance and times of solitude and meditation and private worship so that when Christmas arrives we are fully energized for celebration of the commemoration of our Redeemer's birth. Failure to utilize the gift of the space of these preparatory days may mean that we just drift through the dizzying whirl of parties and decorating and shopping that often accompanies this month and usually ends up with everybody being frazzled and fatigued by December 24. But carving out time each day for music and prayer and scripture can actually renew and invigorate our souls and can enable us, like our spiritual forebear Abraham, to genuinely experience joy when pondering the entrance of Christ into our world.

And of course for us Advent is also about anticipating the second coming of our Lord. That event seemingly is very close. Signs of His return are all about us. In these days of war and terrorism and economic downturn we can look forward with joy as we sense the time approaching and realize that what Jesus commenced with His Bethlehem arrival will be completed at His next appearance. Peace and harmony and wholeness will be ours forevermore. I think old Abraham may have glimpsed that too even if he didn't comprehend it and couldn't grasp how God's purposes would be fulfilled in two stages. This towering man of faith just rejoiced that God's ways would triumph in the end.

Not a bad perspective for us, either, in these uncertain days.

We can't always, with reason alone, understand what God is up to and why He does what He does. Sometimes His ways seem, to our feeble minds, to make no sense. As we worship and study His Word and commune with Him, though, we'll slowly become aware of His presence and peace and an indescribable rest and calm and settled contentment will wash over us and we'll know that everything is going to be alright.

Let's be Abraham people this Advent.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Listening For The Sneezes

In our ministries, we need to learn to listen for the sneezes.


Well, Elisha the prophet could explain what I mean.

In 2 Kings 4:18-37 this man of God accompanied a grief-stricken, desperate, but believing woman back to her home to see what he could do about her dead child. When he got there, he prayed and stretched himself out over the young boy's corpse. Warmth came into the lad's body. Elisha got up, paced for awhile as he prayed, and bent down near the child. Suddenly he heard him sneeze, seven times. The boy opened his eyes and in moments was reunited with his grateful mother. A great miracle of God had just taken place.

Those sneezes were literal. They signaled that the Shunammite woman's son was coming back to life. Metaphorically speaking, we need to be alert to those initial signs and evidences that God is at work around us so that we can join Him in what He's up to in our midst. In our witnessing and church growth efforts we're sometimes tempted to think that nothing is happening and that our labors are in vain. It may appear that other soulwinners are seeing results and other congregations are reaping harvests while we're largely unsuccessful. The situation might seem as hopeless as praying for and massaging a decaying body in which there's not a hint of breath or movement. But don't get discouraged. Sooner or later you may hear a sneeze.

Someone shows up in church for the first time, or after a long, long absence. A person you've been praying for unexplainably starts asking probing spiritual guestions. A usually quiet, reserved individual requests your prayers. A friend is more tearful lately. These may be early reflexes that indicate that the Lord is digging and cultivating in someone's heart and He wants to use you as an instrument to assist in the work.

Or in church life, perhaps you sense a new burst of unity and enthusiasm in the fellowship. Maybe financial giving improves. There's a more pronounced swishing-of-the-Bible-pages-sound as the scriptures are called out and read from in worship. More folks are volunteering to serve. Church members start praying for lost friends and relatives(and not just the sick) and they get more intentional about inviting them and even bringing them to the services. Some of the saints who have been estranged reach out in reconciliation. These jerkings and twitchings are signs that God is reinvigorating and renewing the life of the congregation.

By the time Elisha got to the room where the dead boy lay, the body was certainly deteriorating and decomposing. It surely smelled. The situation looked hopeless. But the prophet refused to count God out and so prayed and waited. The snorts and sneezes that he heard next confirmed that the Father was restoring life.

Have you heard any sneezes lately?

You probably won't unless you do what the prophet did in verse 33 and occasionally shut out all the noises and distractions that would keep you from listening to those first faint sounds of God at work. TV and radio and internet can easily prevent you from a focus on waiting on the Lord. So can excessive busyness and activity. You must be alert and attentive to the coughs and moans that come when God clears out the toxins of the spiritual air passages of people and breathes fresh and stimulating divine oxygen into them. Then you'll have the privilege of cooperating with the Lord in His life-giving project of soul transformation and church renaissance. Solitude and silence and serious reflection every now and then do wonders in helping us be better prepared to minister in the Father's spiritual emergency room in resuscitating those flat-lined in soul.

These are tough times but individuals and churches all around us are sneezing.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Words For Difficult Economic Times

By 21st century standards, the furniture in the room seems a little sparse.

According to 2 Kings 4: 10, the addition built onto the flatroof home of the Shunammite women and her husband to show hospitality to the itinerant prophet Elisha only contained a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp.

This wealthy, devout couple saw holiness, integrity, and possibility in God's spokesman and wanted to provide a place of privacy and rest and refreshing for him when he would occasionally pass through their village. We admire their generosity. But why were the accomodations so Spartan?

Perhaps it was the Lord's way of reminding his servant that we really don't need as much as we think we do. These simple furnishings met his needs for sleep and solitude and study and sustenance. There was no reason to expect to lead a lavish lifestyle while busy in God's work.

Today's prosperity, health-and-wealth, name-it-and-claim-it preachers ought to camp out in this Old Testament story for awhile. Their followers, who almost demand material blessings and an affluent existence from the Lord, should likewise pay attention to this narrative.

Now don't misunderstand. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being rich. It's okay to dream. Taking initiative and making plans and working hard is a good thing. Many Christians are given great wealth and lots of possessions, and that's wonderful. But to assume that abundance should be ours by divine right, and to make the acquisition of prosperity the driving force of our lives, is to completely get out of God's will. Contentment should be our aim. You don't hear many sermons nowadays on that topic. The old Puritan preachers in the 1600's and 1700's used to discourse on it frequently. Their ideas came from a good source--the Bible. There you find Paul talking about "learning to be content" regardless of his circumstances. You hear him saying that if he just has "food and clothing" he'll be content with that. And you discover that Jesus spoke on this subject many times, such as in Matthew 6, where He said that we shouldn't be anxious about life's provisions or Matthew 13, where He stressed that an inordinate concern for riches could choke out genuine spiritual passion in us. Then here, in Elisha, you have this terrific example of a man who wasn't put out or frustrated by the kind offering of simple decor and basic necessities but rather viewed them as ultimately coming from the tender hand of a giving God who sees to it that our needs are always taken care of as we walk with Him.

Maybe Elisha would've gotten lazy and comfortable and complacent if he had been showered with a luxury suite. Maybe his mission would've gotten off track. Perhaps he would've slowly developed a greedy, condescending, take-it-for-granted pattern of living. He might have decided to retire early and enjoy ease or get to the place where he took his eyes off the Lord and come to believe that his personality or his talents or his attainments had brought him all the good things in his grasp instead of the unbounded benevolence of the Heavenly Father. If he had been granted abundance, he might have been one of those who turn their backs on God when, in the inevitable vicissitudes of life, some or all of that fortune is lost. Certainly he may have lost sight of the fact that, really, the simple things in this world are the best anyway. Sunsets. The aroma of a cup of coffee. The smell of new mown grass. Flowers in a vase on the table. The laugh of a child. A lovely painting on the wall.

Our prophet, however, learned the principle of patience and humble gratitude and contented acceptance of whatever God chooses to provide for us. So much so that, when he had the chance to strike it rich in 2 Kings 5:15-16 after participating in a ministry miracle, he turned down the opportunity. He refused to allow avarice to lodge in his soul.

It'd be a good idea to be more aware of, and more thankful for, the simple, ordinary beds, tables, chairs, and lamps that the Lord has seen to it that we have. We'd probably be a lot more relaxed. Our credit card debt wouldn't be nearly as high from trying to impress and keep up with everybody else in the neighborhood. Who knows, maybe then we'd have a lot more freed up money to give to God's work in reaching this world for Christ!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Getting Along In Church

It seems to me that a short verse by Paul is packed with insights for congregational life.

In Romans 12:18 the Apostle writes "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone."

In a day of church tensions, divisions, fractures, and splits this old text is particularly relevant.

For one thing, it reminds us that God is interested in our relationships. This statement is a command, not a suggestion, and it was written at the Holy Spirit's inspiration. God Himself exists in beautiful relational intimacy and mutuality in the Trinity and models for us the unity that should be found in our connections with fellow believers. Some Christians appear to think that God is only concerned with how we worship or whether we tithe or if we fill a slot of service in the organization of the fellowship. They don't realize that the Lord is intensely interested in how we get along with one another in the body of Christ.

Anger, quarreling, resentment, gossip, backbiting, and negativity among the saints all grieve the Holy Spirit. He longs for there to be peace, joy, harmony, and patience in our churches.

This verse hints that occasionally we need to be willing to make compromises and concessions. We certainly must become better listeners. Learning to forgive is paramount. Doing the sometimes hard task of working through issues and negotiating and discussing and praying until resolution is reached is absolutely crucial. Regrettably, so many church members nowadays want to hop off to another congregation at the first sign of a problem or a difference of opinion rather than hanging in there and sticking with a matter until a solution is discovered. They miss the faith-building, maturity-developing process of intense interaction with other Christians in conflict management by walking away and linking up with some other local fellowship that probably has just as many unsettled issues. Getting rid of a pastor or dropping out of church or sitting on the sidelines taking shots at those who are committed to dealing with crises and conflicts doesn't really accomplish anything and just contributes to greater tensions within the congregation. It just prolongs the anxiety.

It's time we all grow up.

Paul isn't sugar-coating the truth here, though. He offers a realistic view. Sometimes we will work feverishly for peace and unity and will not get cooperation from the other side. We do still live in a fallen world. We are part of a movement that Satan likes to torment and would love to defeat. As friendly and as kind as we may be, not everyone is going to like us. You can't please everybody. Some in your church not only may not want to be close to you but may actually enjoy being at odds with you. If you have to have everybody's approval to feel good about yourself, you're in for a rough ride. If you're a people-pleaser, understand that the apostle is conceding in our text that it's probably not accurate to think that you can make everybody happy. Live humbly, graciously, truthfully, and openly but realize that regardless of your efforts to labor for progress or to work for reconciliation or to demonstrate a godly lifestyle there will probably always be some who just won't accept you or agree with you.

Our mandate in these days is to do everything we can in our congregations and homes and neighborhoods to show forth the Kingdom way of life as salt and light and to illustrate that relationships can be lived on a much higher plane than what we see in the world around us.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hollywood's Take On Faith

Two recent Hollywood films touch on the role of faith in everyday life.

Regrettably, the story lines in both movies miss the point when it comes to authentic biblical Christianity.

In "Henry Poole Is Here" Luke Wilson stars as a handsome young man who has a terminal illness. He buys a modest home in his old neighborhood in Los Angeles and prepares to live out his final days in isolation and binge drinking. He soon discovers that some of his neighbors think that they see the face of Jesus on an outside wall of his house. Crowds start gathering in his backyard to view the spectacle and before long rumors of miracles happening to some of those touching the intriguing impression begin to spread.

Mr. Poole, the homeowner, remains incredulous. Bothered, too, by the invasion of his privacy. Because of his sickness and his memories of an unhappy childhood, he's a little cynical, anyway. As events unfold, his perspective changes, however, and the motion picture ends on an upbeat note.

It's a positive, refreshing, feel-good-kind-of-movie. I suppose we should be glad for a wholesome, clean, life-affirming film like this.

But the message portrayed here about faith is anything but accurate and is actually quite deceptive.

This is another in a long line of literary and celluloid works coming out of a breezy, amorphous, New Age culture that seeks to loose spirituality from scriptural moorings. The idea seems to be that it's important to just believe in something, regardless of the content of that allegiance. The view is that if you possess some generic faith and are passionate about it that's all that matters since there are no absolutes anyway and truth is relative to each person's understanding and every individual is free to create his own reality. Trouble with that is that once you jettison biblical teaching and reject the distinctive, concrete person and work of Jesus Christ through whom you can know personally the God who created you in his image, you start floundering. You remain in a spiritual void with a God-shaped vacuum in your soul that cries out for fulfilment and presses for satisfaction. Some people will try anything and believe anything just to calm that empty feeling.

Colossians 2 in the New Testament would be a good place to read about all of this. It stresses that having a life-altering relationship with Christ as revealed in scripture is sufficient for our greatest inner needs. It implies that individuals who somehow find it impossible to just accept the simple revelation of God's marvelous plan for salvation often will embrace mysticism or attempted conversations with angels or cultish teachings or fascination with statues and images and strange shapes in the clouds or excessive ascetic practices. It's the literal Jesus of the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb that can transform us, not some shadowy, mysterious apparition.

The other summertime film with religious themes is "Brideshead Revisited" which stars Emma Thompson. Based on the 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh it is set in England in the years between the two world wars and tells the story of a young, middle class, aspiring artist, Charles Ryder, who becomes friends with an upper class fellow student, Sebastian, at Oxford, and ultimately gets inextricably bound up in the wealth and dysfunction of his family at their lavish country estate. There the matriarch, Lady Marchmain, lives out her faith in a heavy-handed way that creates pain and division--her husband is driven to an affair and moves to Venice, and her 4 adult children take divergent paths in their relating to her and to God.

This cinematic piece graphically illustrates the differing approaches that people take with God.

Some in the story try to relate to God in a legalistic way--keeping all the rules and observing all the rituals and forms and ceremonies of religion, hoping to appease and please and earn God's favor. This path inevitably produces coldness and harshness. It looks with scorn on those who don't measure up. There's no joy or peace. It's all working and striving. The Bible is quite clear in texts like Titus 3:4-7 and Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 3 that trying to merit our position with God is a dead-end. God dispenses grace. He can do so because of the death of his sinless Son on our behalf. Instead of lifeless religion, it's possible to have a relationship with the living God by trust in Christ's completed work.

Others in this movie seem to feel that Christians can live any way they want to just as long as they check in with God occasionally and confess and repent. In other words, it's okay to live with reckless abandon if you just throw in some penitent prayers every now and then. Again, seriously flawed thinking. Christ-followers are called to a whole new way of conduct in speech and habits and behavior. They are to honor God and model a transformed mode of existence by their lifestyle. Check Romans 12:1-2 on that, or Colossians 3:1-10. To claim to be a Christian and yet live a self-centered, "I'll do as I please" kind of life is fooling oneself. It indicates that one doesn't understand God's holiness or mercy and probably never really established a connection with him. No Christian is perfect but he is to be different.

Of course Charles Ryder himself suggests one other response to God--that of leaving him out completely. Of trying to live independently of him as if he wasn't even there. Of seeking to build one's own life by pushing the Creator aside as if to say, "Mind your own business. I want to do things my way." Psalm 14 discusses the sheer folly of that. It was encouraging at film's end to see some small evidence that Mr. Ryder had yielded on this critical issue of the soul.

This movie certainly reminds us that sometimes religion can be unhealthy. Not everything done in the name of Christ resembles his teachings or his ways. Churches can occasionally hurt people instead of helping people, as when they inordinately emphasize numbers or hammer persons who make mistakes or seek to control the lives of individuals. Hypocrisy or arrogance or pride in Bible knowledge or runaway emotionalism can harm people rather than pointing them to a grace-based walk with God. Christian parents especially have a responsibility to demonstrate before their children that following Christ is a delight, not a drudge or a duty. Religion should not make us sick but healthy and whole and progressively restored to God's wonderful original design for our lives.

These Hollywood offerings speak to us of great matters of the spirit. We need to listen.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

There's Gonna Be A Meetin'

I'm already getting excited about the PBA Annual Meeting for this year.

It's set for October 20-21 at First Baptist, Newport News.

It'll be a 2-day gathering this time around because there's so much to be accomplished. We'll mix inspiration with information, devotional periods with significant decisionmaking, and hopefully you'll leave refreshed and renewed and ready to go back to your church motivated to work even harder in Kingdom business.

It looks like we've got a terrific thematic speaker coming. There should be a good amount of great music and abundant opportunity for worshipping the Lord. Encouraging reports from our various teams and work groups will be presented that will remind us all again that we are an association on mission.

Expect some crucial recommendations to be offered. We've been in an interim, transition stage this year and a lot of our folks have done some hard work in studying and coming up with options for some of the critical issues we face as a united collection of churches. The Admin Team and the Eastover Retreat Board and the Mission Center group have all labored intensely over many months to come up with ideas of solutions for some of our most pressing concerns so that we can soon move forward with new zest and zeal. Eddie Heath, Billy Hutchinson, Mark Reon, Dick Bailey, and Bill Cashman have been among those providing extraordinarily wise counsel and extremely helpful stability alongside these committees and our staff this year. Prepare to hear and act on some positive, future-oriented concepts on such things as the ultimate location for our PBA office and what path to take in our relationship to the Seaman's ministry and how best to position and utilize our staff in line with our stated mission statement and a possible track for our Eastover ministry. Get your full count of messengers to attend these sessions so that our understanding of these exciting proposals might be complete and so that we might progress in unity. Your interim leadership team was tasked with the responsibility of assisting in the formation of a dynamic, creative vision for the changing, challenging years ahead and we've earnestly tried to fulfil that assignment. We're not done yet, but hope by the Annual Meeting to have at least tentative recommendations for you to consider.

A word about Eastover: this may end up being one of our very best years over there. We could significantly enhance our effectiveness in that ministry, though, if we could quickly complete work on the new Activity Building. That facility would actually become the gateway and perhaps even the heart of the camp. We really need lots of volunteer labor to accomplish this task. We need people to do flooring work and painting and installation of restroom fixtures and siding and lighting and cabinets and shelves and some to help with landscaping. Aren't there some folks in your congregation who could step forward, give a little time and sweat, and knock out some of these jobs? Call George Arthur(294-3636) and set up a time for your work team to drive over and help.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Jesus certainly knew how to be relevant in His presentation of the Gospel message.

Luke 13:1-5 is a perfect illustration of how our Lord effectively communicated the truth and connected with His listeners. We could learn a thing or two from His approach.

In that passage we discover that He has been teaching a little about His eventual second coming. In verse 1 He responds to a question about a recent happening in Jerusalem--Pilate's brutal killing of some Galilean Jewish worshippers. The popular thinking of the day would lead one to assume that those murdered surely must have been wicked sinners to suffer such a cruel fate. Jesus reacts to that false theology by asserting that the tragedy should not be viewed that way at all. Calamities and catastrophes and illnesses can come to anybody because we live in a fallen world. Indeed, all are sinners and deserve God's wrath and judgement and must repent to avoid dire consequences. The bad stuff that happens all around us and can strike at any time actually serves as a warning that evil will ultimately defeat and destroy us unless we turn to God.

But notice how Jesus takes an inquiry from His audience and uses it as a springboard to convey crucial spiritual insight. His mind was keen and sharp. He was aware of the nagging, critical issues swirling about and was ready in a moment to use them to offer helpful, transformative observations. He was able to not just spout off long doctrinal lectures but to speak persuasively about real events going on in the world around Him and how to view them with a divine perspective. I Peter 3:15 comes to mind here. We need to always be prepared to speak a word about our hopeful faith and how it can make a difference in everyday life. Friends and neighbors will occasionally question us about what the Bible says about some cultural trend or fad. They'll want to know what we believe about some philosophy or a particular recent world crisis. Like our Lord, we must be mentally and spiritually equipped to provide honest, gracious answers and show them how God's workings intersect with the affairs of day-to day living. It's almost like Jesus is doing a press conference here! He's really good on His feet. Focused, thoughtful, incisive.This is a way to take the old, old message of scripure and make it relevant to a contemporary generation.

But our Lord does another creative, mind-opening thing in verse 4. He brings up a current news event Himself.

It's only mentioned here in the New Testament. Had there been a Jerusalem Post in those days it definitely would have reported, in some recent edition, about the construction tragedy involving a collapsed tower in Siloam where 18 workers were killed.There were no newspapers, however. There was no CNN or MSNBC. News still got around, though, and Jesus seized upon this devastating happening to further amplify and highlight His teaching about human suffering, God's will, and the ongoing necessity for repentance. Remember how in school we'd have to cut news items out of the paper and bring them to class to discuss? Well, Jesus was aware of the events taking place in society around Him and used them as tools to get across significant principles. Part of our preparation to be fit, crisp, relevant communicators of the Word will be learning how to see and interpret what's taking place around us in politics and sports and entertainment and science and the arts. That may mean watching the nightly news alongside of studying Romans. That could mean subscribing to Newsweek as well as reading Luke or Galatians. Maybe taking in a movie or a college basketball game every now and then would add to our communicating skills in sharing an evangelistic witness. Being alert to what's going on in our world gives us a wide array of illustrations and pictures for presenting truth. The brand new Hollywood film, Wall-E, offers a terrific launching pad for discussing the perils of empty consumerism and neglectful environmental stewardship and the beauty of relationships, for example.

Never forget, however, that although Jesus was relevant in His presentation of the message He did not compromise in the content of it. In verses 3 and 5 He stresses repentance and talks about perishing. Some of our modern preachers are so concerned about being cutting edge and smooth and popular and successful that they don't talk about sin or the Cross or the blood of Jesus or Hell anymore. That's dangerous. God called us to speak His Word, not be Oprahs.

We'd do well to learn from the master communicator(the Master himself) how best to be relevant!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tim Russert

I've been grieving a little bit this week.

I'm gonna miss Tim Russert.

I was stunned last Friday by the news that this political commentator and "Meet The Press" host had died suddenly at his work. I sat in front of my TV for a few hours, wiping some tears, as his colleagues at MSNBC paid tribute to this fallen giant of broadcast journalism.

Because his weekly show came on during Sunday morning church time I wasn't able to watch, on a regular basis, his keen interviewing of fascinating individuals in public life. But at other occasions during the weekdays when he'd be asked to provide some analysis and interpretation of unfolding events in politics, I'd perk up and pay careful attention when he was on camera. He knew his stuff. He did his homework. His remarks were always crisp and fresh and usually right on the mark. He was so interesting to listen to and seemed so passionate about what he was discussing at the moment.

It's hard to believe that he is gone and that his voice is stilled and that his sharp, creative mind will no longer inform and stretch ours with his well-crafted incisive insights. He seemed to be too young to be snatched away like that. He pulsated with energy and with enthusiasm for what he did. I agree with columnist and commentator Peggy Noonan who borrowed a line from a novel and said that Tim died "in his joy". At the top of his game. Immersed in something he loved. Busy and active right up until the moment that the unexpected divine summons came.

And he had other great loves, too. He cherished his family. He wrote so movingly about his close, warm relationship with his dad. He cared so much for his wife and son. He drew tremendous strength from his Christian faith. So many are telling of the encouragement that he gave to others. He will truly be missed.

Each of us will have a date with death. We don't get to pick the year, or the day, or the place, or the circumstances.

When the time for our appointment arrives, will we be found at our post? Will we be enjoying the life that God has given us or be whining and complaining? Are we blazing a trail for those coming after us? What will people say about us when we're gone? How many will show up for our funeral? How will we be remembered? Will others say that their lives are richer and better because we passed their way? Will others genuinely be sad when we breathe our last?

Something to think about. Thanks, Tim, for stimulating our thought processes all these years about candidates and elections and blue states and red states and exit polls and all that. But thanks, too, for getting our minds awakened and stirred now, at your departure, about the most important issues of life.

And thanks for being such a great human being.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Mission Readiness

We have our assignment. We know what we're supposed to do.

In Acts 1:8 Jesus gave us our mission. Just before His ascension, He charged us to be witnesses for Him in the power of the Holy Spirit until His return. The mandate is quite clear. The command given on that hilltop has not changed in all these intervening centuries even though the gospel message has penetrated throughout the world. There should be no confusion about what the basic activity and responsibility of the Church must be in these days. On the surface, the text, which is a good outline of the whole book of Acts, appears to suggest that there was to be a gradual, progressive outworking of the message of good news from where the disciples were in Jerusalem ultimately to the far reaches of the globe.

Devotionally, there is more than one approach or application in trying to understand the geographical venues in this challenging verse.

Obviously the point is made that when it comes to evangelism, you begin where you find yourself. We have a lot of Baptists signing up for overseas mission trips who never share their faith in their own neighborhoods. That reminds me of that thought-provoking statement, "how can we expect God to use us as lighthouses somewhere else if we're not willing to be used as candles where we are?" Congregations should pay a lot of attention to the local communities right around their doors and prioritize and plan to have an impact on them.

Some have looked at this text's soulwinning destinations metaphorically. In that case, Jerusalem would represent the cities, the great urban areas or perhaps instead, evangelism among those already entrenched in religion or maybe talking up Christ among people in our own families. Judea would illustrate the hard, rocky, barren places--witnessing to the bitter, the argumentative, the resistant. Samaria could well picture testifying of Jesus to people of other races and ethnic groups. Then "to the end of the earth" would speak of not giving up and not getting apathetic but always pressing on and looking for fresh, creative methods of outreach.

Certainly you can view these place names as suggestive of concentric circles that lay out an unfolding track for our evangelistic efforts. You sow the seed in your hometown, your state or region, on the national level, and then around the world. It's interesting that in denominational life we're structured missionally that way with our local associations, state conventions, and the large umbrella SBC. Churches relate voluntarily but do so to cooperate in the massive enterprise to which God has called us. We can accomplish more together. Nate Adams develops all of this so well in his book The Acts 1:8 Challenge(Lifeway Press, 2004).

The bottom line is that we've got work to do! And it's on a global scale. But our strategy should be glocal.

Churches dare not say "well, we're gonna spend all our mission dollars here locally. There are plenty of unsaved individuals right here on the Peninsula. We don't need to send vast sums of money overseas somewhere. Besides, we want to be able to see how our funds are being utilized." What a short-sighted approach. By the same token, though, we must never assume that we're faithfully carrying out the Great Commission if we're throwing large monetary allotments to our missionaries across the oceans, and salving our consciences when we see poverty-stricken third world children on the nightly news if we're not purposely, actively reaching our nearby communities with the saving gospel and social help!

Read Acts 1:8 again. It's not either/or but rather both/and. By the way, we may not have much time left, either. It's time to rise to the our generation.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tutoring From Paul On Prayer

I'm impressed by the prayers of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 1:15-21 and 3:14-21.

We can learn from him how to pray more effectively when we intercede for others.

For instance, this man of God lets people know that he's praying for them. That's bound to bring encouragement in itself. But he takes it a step further and informs them as to just what he's asking the Lord to do on their behalf. That means that he's thought seriously about his petitions and is probably much more likely to follow through on his pledge to pray. It reveals his diligent care and gives those who are the recipients of his prayer support not only some insight into what their intercessor senses that they need but a way to measure the results of the praying.

In both prayers Paul is specific in his requests. No bland, generic, half-hearted petitions here. Sometimes I wonder if God gets weary of our lazy "Lord, bless all the missionaries" or "Father, heal all the sick" or "God, save the lost" prayers. We can get so comfortable just beseeching the Lord to "bless" somebody without visualizing what it would look like for that individual to be blessed. It's almost an easy, apathetic, lack of genuine concern. The Apostle is quite focused. He concentrates on nuanced needs, areas, and possibilities as he intercedes. He's gone to the trouble of trying to ascertain exactly where divine aid and intervention would be most beneficial in the lives of his readers. It takes more effort to pray like that but it is much more successful. Prayer is often work, anyway(Colossians 4:12). Approaching God's throne with trite, generalized phrases probably accomplishes very little.

It's interesting, too, that Paul prays about their souls and not their bodies. He prays for their spiritual condition. He petitions the Father for their inner growth and well-being. Usually we do just the opposite. Most of our prayer meetings are consumed by supplications for the physical needs of others, typically that the sick among us will be healed. There's absolutely nothing wrong with requesting that God restore those who are ill to health. In fact, we are commanded to do so(James 5:14). We should do more of that kind of intercession. However, if that is the bulk of our praying we are missing tremendous opportunities. Our brothers and sisters have great needs in their spirits as well as their physiques. Many are lonely and grieving and discouraged. Many are doubting and drifting. All of us are tempted daily, some heavily. We desperately need the prayer support of fellow believers that we will be "strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man"(Ephesians 3:16). Intense intercession should go up regularly for Christian friends, by name, that they will have God's guidance or comfort or nurturing or conviction or challenge. It wouldn't be a bad idea to pray more often for revival, too.

We could probably have no better tutor in our praying than the Apostle. He surely sets a good example.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Caring Ministry

Sometimes God's people are not as sensitive and caring as they should be toward hurting persons.

Just ask Hannah, in I Samuel 1.

This Old Testament woman was sad and depressed because of the rivaling presence in her home of her husband's other wife, Peninah. Her real pain and disappointment, though, resulted from the fact that she was childless. In her grief and tears she went to the Tabernacle one day to pray. There Eli the priest observed her passionate pleas and drew the conclusion that she was drunk. He scolded her.

Later the man of God saw his error and changed his approach, but he almost missed a chance to be a help and blessing to a burdened individual.

Why was this spiritual leader initially so out of touch, and why did he choose a ministry plan that was cold and condemning instead of listening with grace and compassion and then reaching out with beneficial resources? We can only speculate.

Maybe he was so immersed in Tabernacle culture that he had lost the ability to understand the needs of everyday people. This Jewish center of religious life was his job and his world. It is just as possible for Christians today to be insulated from the struggles and heartaches of our surrounding communities. We have our Christian friends and beliefs and lingo and activities, and tend to forget what it's like for those outside the bubble. We get a fortress mentality.

Or maybe Eli's problem was that he was looking at this troubled woman through the lens of his personal issues. We learn that his own family was dysfunctional. His sons, themselves priests, were greedy and cynical and immoral and gluttonous and perhaps drunkards. He couldn't do anything with them. This lady's animated pleadings may have triggered feelings of guilt or anger or frustration that blinded him to her real need. Psychologists tell us that sometimes we unconsciously project onto others those parts of us that we do not like. It's difficult, then, to genuinely relate with interest and care to the actual concerns that are presented.

It could've been burnout. You can't give out and give out and serve, serve, serve without taking some time for yourself. Stress and overwork can destroy your ministry, whether you're a pastor or a layperson. You've got to have rest and diversion and inner refueling. It might be that Eli had lost his passion and just couldn't accept it in her.

Obviously he didn't discern what was happening in her heart since he just made a snap judgement based on her actions. We're good at that, too. Maybe the "worship wars" in our churches would end if we stopped looking at styles and started focusing on hearts. Maybe if we remembered that everybody is wrestling with something we'd be more patient with one another. Just about anyone you meet is struggling with some private grief or hurt or pain.

I'm so glad that Jesus didn't minister like Eli did. More and more we should learn to try to help people like our Lord must have.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Trouble In Paradise

It sure would be nice if the worship wars would just go away.

Disagreement over styles and techniques of worship has brought wrenching conflict to a lot of congregations. Usually, but not always, the tension and divide has been between different generations. Opposing views on types of music and instruments and order of service and whether or not to clap hands and lift hands and whether to stay traditional or go contemporary or try a blended approach have all sometimes brought serious turmoil in some churches and even resulted in fractures and splits. At the very least, unity is often jeopardized.

It seems so surreal that local fellowships whose high calling and chief purpose is to praise and adore the living God can't come together and cooperate in how to do it.

Two events in the life of Old Testament king David, both recorded in 2 Samuel 6, may provide some insight and guidance on this subject.

In the first half of the chapter we find this relatively new monarch attempting to transport the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. This box symbolized the presence and power of the Lord and the spiritually sensitive king wanted it known that God reigned in the capital city. He leads an exuberant, festal procession as the ark is moved. But in his exhilaration and sincere passion he makes a terrible mistake. Instead of having the ark carried by the Kohathites with poles on their shoulders, as the OT law prescribed, David mounted it on a new cart pulled by oxen for the journey. At some point, the animals stumbled and it appeared that the sacred chest was about to slide off the cart. A man by the name of Uzzah, with the very best of intentions, quickly reaches out to steady the ark and is instantly struck dead in an act of God's judgement. Despite his innocence and benevolence, he had violated God's requirement that this special box not be touched because it was a symbol of the Lord's holiness and because adequate preparation must be made before approaching Him. David was angry and then confused and then fearful at this tragic incident, but as he reflected he got the message!

We can learn something here. God values His holiness. He is concerned about the details. It matters to Him in what manner we draw close to Him. If our worship is just shallow emotionalism or just continual efforts to try something new or just going through the motions without genuine heart conditioning we may end up actually displeasing the Lord. Changing our methods simply to attract the culture around us or to make church more suitable to our evolving tastes will not necessarily honor the God we profess to love. We dare not forget that true worship is work. It takes discipline and focus.It must not be done in a flippant, cavalier way and it certainly should never turn into mere entertainment for ourselves. It's serious business because it's directed toward a lofty, majestic, transcendant God.

There is a flip side, however. In the second half of the chapter, David, after a few months, gets his act together. He resumes the delivery of the ark to Jerusalem. This time he does it right.
Now he is even more passionate and excited. There's not only music and a parade, but dancing(he couldn't have been Baptist!) before the Lord. Another problem surfaces, though. The king's wife, Michal, is awaiting his arrival back in Jerusalem and watching for him from a window. When she sees his joyful, unbridled dancing she is repulsed. She impugns his motives, criticizes his actions, and labels them as undignified and improper. David tries to explain that his jubilant movements were spiritually, not sensually, inspired, and that he planned to continue with even greater intensity. The story ends with the statement that Michal remained childless the rest of her life. Either their marital intimacy died that day or else God judged her cold, negative heart in this area.

Again lessons emerge. We can get so stiff and staid in our worship that the joy evaporates. We can allow ourselves to get locked into the same old traditional patterns of offering praise and we lose the life and the vibrancy. We might even catch ourselves becoming critical of those who desire to yield their worship in fresh, creative ways. If our worship becomes stale and halfhearted and routine we could potentially lose our sensitivity to the voice of the Lord. Churches are dying because they insist on keeping everything the same. But if God is always on the move, we've got to be willing to explore and experiment. We've got to be open to varying styles and expressions so that a new generation coming behind us can feel included, too. Dazzling creativity and celebration should characterize our church praise gatherings as we mix different musical genres and utilize the arts and diverse instruments and even, like the ancient king, sometimes incorporate sacred dance into our worship. But the key, as in David's case, is to do what we do from the heart, a heart truly focused on glorifying Him and bringing Him delight.

I call for a truce in the worship battles. It's time we stop demanding what we've become comfortable with or what makes us feel good and start seeking God's pleasure and what will build up the whole congregation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mixed Reviews

Two events in the reign of Old Testament king Hezekiah are instructive for church life today.

One was a decisive, positive, necessary action. The other was a harmful, selfish attitude.

In 2 Kings 18 we read of how this monarch came to power in Judah and instituted some needed religious reforms. In verse 4 it is mentioned that among these changes was the breaking into pieces of the bronze serpent that Moses had made centuries earlier. Bear in mind that this object had been a great help to the people at a critical time. Remember that it was God who had directed Moses to fashion it. Don't forget that at the time it was originally set up it was a powerful symbol and reminder of the Lord's presence and mercy and healing. And yet years down the road, here is Hezekiah destroying it?

To us it seems odd. It appears to be a sacrilegious act. That is, until we read a little further and discover that as time had elapsed the people had begun to worship this thing. A tool that had been designed to get individuals focused on God was now itself an object of veneration. It clearly had to go. It had become an idol. It needed immediate removal, regardless of its sentimental value or traditional feel, so that the people once again could concentrate on worshipping the living, invisible God who is not stationary or manageable. Hezekiah gets a thumbs up. He does what is right here.

There's a lesson for contemporary congregations in this. We sometimes set up policies and organizations and programs in our churches that are very useful and effective at the time of their launching but that may tend to lose their impact as the years roll by in terms of their drawing us closer to Christ and making us stronger disciples. Our tendency, though, is to hang on to these instruments and procedures because we've gotten comfortable with them. They make us feel safe and secure. We've used them for so long that we've gotten in a rut. When someone suggests that we tweak them or discard them to see if there might be a fresher, more up to date, more creative way to meet the same need, we often cling tenaciously to the familiar, to what worked in the past. We almost get to the point where we worship our traditions and our buildings and our order of service and our worship styles and our bylaws and even our same seats in church rather than the always moving and unpredictable and sovereign God. Frankly, we develop a church culture that can actually be out of step with, and opposed to, the ways of the Lord!

But wise, farsighted Hezekiah blunders a couple of chapters later. In 2 Kings 20 he makes a bad mistake and exhibits a wrong attitude.

On one occasion he unthinkingly shows all his treasures to some visiting Babylonians. The prophet Isaiah verbally chastises him for that and predicts that a day is coming when this eventual enemy will show up and seize all this material wealth from a future generation. Hezekiah's selfish response to that dire warning was to remark, in essence, that at least it wasn't going to happen in his time so he could just relax and enjoy the present. Sadly, many senior saints in our congregations today think similarly. Their position seems to be "we realize that our way of doing church will probably not draw younger people, but please leave us alone and let us maintain our established, comfortable ways of leadership and structure for now. Then after we're gone, the folks coming behind us can do whatever they want to. It'll just be more peaceful this way."

I gotta tell you that that is a prescription for losing time, momentum, and ground. It's a recipe for church failure and even death. It puts security above Kingdom business, ease before reaching a new generation for Jesus, coziness in place of doing the sometimes difficult work of finding out what God wants us to do in these challenging days of flux and fluidity. Each of us only gets one life, one shot at making a difference in the time period that the Lord has given us. We dare not waste or fritter away our opportunity! We can't afford to be so chained to the past and so settled in the present that we're not constantly dreaming and envisioning and reshaping for the future that is coming at us at breakneck speed.

Thanks, Hezekiah, for letting us learn from your successes and your errors.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Insight For Living

It's amazing how you can plop down just about anywhere in Psalm 119 and get a verse that really speaks to life issues.

This long poem right in the center of the Bible is all about scripture. It was obviously written by someone who loved God's Word and wanted to laud its authority, beauty, power, and helpfulness. Each of its 176 statements points out the relevance and the aid of the Bible for the varied concerns that we face daily, like suffering and temptation and persecution and decisionmaking.

Take verse 32, for example. It says "I will run in the way of your commandments, for you shall enlarge my heart." I see the text highlighting 2 matters of crucial import to those who are followers of Christ and on the journey with Him.

Notice that the writer speaks of running. We're accustomed to the metaphor of walking to describe the Christian life, but here a much more energetic, accelerated pace is endorsed by this particular lover of God. He is exuberant about his faith and finds exhiliration in it. It is not a chore or a burden or simply a duty, but a lifestyle in which he delights.

What a contrast this is with the attitudes exhibited by many contemporary believers who seem to be bored with church and prayer and Bible study. Their pilgrimage is a drudgery. There is little enthusiasm. They appear to be just going through the motions. Somewhere along the way they have veered off into a ditch and gotten stuck in the mud spiritually, maybe due to sin or sorrow or disappointment or pressure. They need somehow to reconnect with the Lord in such a way that they sense again the joy, freedom, and lift that come when the daily walk becomes a sprint. This Lenten season would be a terrific time to do some reflection and evaluation and make some fresh commitments to this athletic race of the soul.

But it's critical to observe, too, that the psalmist mentions the proper running track. He refers to eagerly springing forward "in the way of your commandments" which gives him a definite lane to run in and a finish line to attain. It's not haphazard. It's not just zest and momentum and perspiration. There is direction and discipline. Here is a clear focus. This writer moves toward greater levels of obedience to the principles and precepts that he discovers in scripture. He advances and makes progress by living out the knowledge that he acquires in God's Word.

Lots of present-day Christians, different from the cold, half-hearted crowd mentioned earlier, have boundless excitement. They may shout in church. Say "amen" and "praise the Lord" frequently. Smile constantly or shed tears at a moving gospel song or get emotional or volunteer for all kinds of church jobs. They may sincerely love Jesus and desire to please Him. But if they don't immerse themselves in the Bible and build their lives around its practical teachings sooner or later they will get tired and run out of spiritual energy. Burnout will occur. They'll stumble into some sin. Discouragement will set in and their run will slow to a crawl. They'll meet up with stresses or struggles that they don't have the resources to deal with because they've been living on fumes rather than on the fuel of scriptural insights.

What all of us really have to have is enlarged hearts. Only God can do that kind of soul remodeling and expansion in us. He has to do it before we can be saved(regeneration) and He has to do it before we can grow as believers(sanctification). His methods can sometimes be uncomfortable and painful. He has our best interests at heart, though, and so is far more concerned with our holiness than with our happiness. If we are the runners then He is the trainer. Let's remember, too, that He is the prize at the end of the marathon.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Generational Partnership

There is a place at the table for both younger people and older folks when it comes to ministry in the church and in associational life.

At least that's what Acts 2:17 seems to suggest.

On the day of Pentecost the apostle Peter quotes from the Old Testament prophet Joel to describe to curious and confused onlookers what has just happened to the disciples in the upper room with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the launching of the Church. There is that intriguing line that mentions young men seeing visions and old men dreaming dreams as a result of the life-giving, energizing work of the Spirit.

Clearly both age groups are to be vitally involved in the leadership and mission of the Christian movement. It is regrettable, then, that in congregational life and associational affairs there is often a tension and occasionally even outright conflict between generations. Older adults sometimes say that the young are too green, too immature, too radical, too bent on change. Younger people speak of their elders as being too old fashioned and resistant to anything new and unwilling to share power and embrace fresh directions in the midst of a culture that is fluid and diverse and in constant flux, quite unlike any other period in our history. Lines get drawn. Cooperation suffers. The incredible impact of a united team with each age demographic offering its unique gifts and abilities is missing.

Proverbs 20:29 shouts at us that young and old both bring crucial contributions to bear on Christian work. It says that the "glory of young men is their strength, and the splendor of old men is gray hair" which indicates that we need the energy and zest and creativity of the younger set and the wisdom and depth and experience of the older crowd in order to have balance and cohesion. To neglect either generation's input and inspiration and integration is to make the body less potent than it could be. Whether it's worship styles or ministry approaches or methodology, we need to listen to each other and learn and find common ground and share together in reaching our communities for Christ. This applies to individual churches and to our Peninsula Baptist Association in this critical transitional moment.

Scripture highlights for us 2 mistakes that need to be avoided.

The young must be careful not to repeat the error of new king Rehoboam, Solomon's son, in 2 Chronicles 10 when he foolishly ignored the wise counsel of his older advisors and accepted the shortsighted advice of his contemporaries. That ultimately resulted in the division of the United Kingdom! There was a time when the monarch should have paid attention to the more seasoned reflections of his mature consultants.

But older church leaders must strenuously seek to guard against the attitude of king Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20. On one occasion he unwisely showed all his treasures to some visiting Babylonians. The prophet Isaiah chastised him for that and predicted that a day was coming when the enemy would show up and seize all that material wealth from a future generation. Hezekiah's selfish response to that dire warning was to remark, in essence, that at least it wasn't going to happen in his time so he could just relax and enjoy the present. Sadly, many senior saints in our congregations think similarly. Their position seems to be "We realize that our way of doing church will probably not draw younger people, but we want to maintain our comfortable ways of leadership and procedures for now. After we're gone, the folks coming after us can do whatever they want to.It's more peaceful this way." That's a prescription for losing time, momentum, and ground. It's a recipe for church and associational failure. It puts security above Kingdom business, ease before reaching people for Jesus.

Even if it takes effort and work and patience, let's find ways to come together generationally. These are such exciting days to be alive and involved in ministry. We must not miss our opportunity. After all, this is the only time we will have to make our mark and leave our legacy. Right now the PBA needs the fresh ideas of young people about techniques and strategies. We need their enthusiasm, too. We also need the accumulated insights of our older folks, who shouldn't back out but rather should reinvest and renew their commitment in their freer retirement years to helping make our association strong and vibrant, sharp and focused, effective and successful.

It's a joy and privilege to try and be of help during these months. Feel free to call on me.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

At The Movies

Three currently popular Hollywood films deal with some pretty heavy issues.

There Will Be Blood is set in the early 1900's and is a story about discovering and drilling for oil in the American West and how that affected two men, an entrepeneur and a young preacher. It is a tale of unbridled desire and greed. Deceit, manipulation, and hypocrisy show up, too. I'm reminded of the pointed inquiry of Jesus in Mark 8:36, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

The movie Atonement is a drama about guilt and trying to find a way to deal with it. It concerns a young girl's misunderstanding and misrepresentation of some facts, perhaps in adolescent jealousy, and the bitter consequences that ripple out and impact several lives. The devastation that can result from one simple, brief moment of deception is vividly demonstrated. The painful tug of a tortured conscience and the intense efforts to assuage its gnawings are skillfully portayed here.

A little lighter but nevertheless still compelling is Bucket List. Two men, different in every way, are thrown together by sickness in the same hospital room. They each learn that their illness is terminal and that they only have a few months left to live. The bittersweet narrative has them teaming up and becoming partners in an attempt to enjoy the the short time they have remaining before they "kick the bucket". They draw up a list of all the things they'd like to do and then set out to accomplish them. There are lots of travels and exploits that keep them busy but along the way lots of discussions about life, death, relationships, unfinished business, and eternity come up, too. The film has you laughing and maybe shedding a tear or two as well.

I mention all this because it reminds us again that the secular culture around us, as dark and pagan as it is, grapples with deep matters of the soul and spirit. People are searching. They are questioning and looking for answers and sometimes their inner yearnings and longings spill out in the art that they create. We Christians need to constantly be alert and prepared to point them to the truth as the apostle challenged us in I Peter 3:15. Right now, as our friends and neighbors view these motion pictures, they're gonna be thinking all over again about these intensely spiritual concerns. We have a chance to move into their vacuum and void and offer hope and direction. Just like Paul did in Acts 16:30 when a desperate, almost suicidal man cried out "What must I do to be saved?" and just like he did in Acts 17 when he encountered the religious and philosophical confusion of Athens and presented the life-altering message of the Gospel that can transform the morass of godless thinking.

Of course we need to learn to be adept at asking questions, too. Questions that will open doors and springboard us into conversations about serious heart issues. That will move us beyond trivial, surface chatter about the weather and sports and politics and propel us into dialogue about those things that really matter, like what you do about sin and where can you find peace and how can you face death. Philip the evangelist, in Acts 8:30, asked one little cleverly placed question that initiated a chat and steered the discussion into fertile territory for a consideration of crucial topics. As a result, an Ethiopian government official became a Christ-follower and went back to his nation and made a difference. Sometimes an inquiry as simple as "do you ever give much thought to spiritual matters" can launch you into a talk that will enable you to sow a lot of seed and turn on a lot of light and may, just may, end up with your friend praying to receive Christ.

Let's always be sensitive to the opportunities right around us to bear a witness for Jesus. Even if it means using movie plots as ice breakers.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Working Together

Churches cooperating together in ministry is a good thing.

An old thing, too.

We see lots of evidences in the New Testament of congregations partnering with each other to get Kingdom work done. Apparently in those first century days many cities would have one church made up of many local, neighborhood fellowships spread out through an area and meeting in homes or caves or by riverbanks. It seems that these smaller, tangible expressions of that one church worked together much like our modern associations. It also looks like there was a beautiful collaboration between congregations in different cities. Rather than isolation or competition there was unity and a shared effort to evangelize the lost and disciple believers and minister to the needy. We can learn from that! There are insights to be gleaned from the lifegiving linkages among the earliest churches that can instruct us today about our joint labors as Peninsula Baptists.

If you check out 2 Corinthians 11:28 you'll find Paul, while writing about some of the hardships of his apostolic career, mentioning that probably his greatest pressure came from his "care for all the churches" which was an ongoing challenge. I guess you could say he was almost like a DOM. These various local fellowships would all have their struggles and problems and issues. He was concerned and burdened for them, and would pray for them and try to be a help. One of the obvious benefits of associational life is the mutual assistance and encouragement that comes through accountability and networking when our individual congregations go through difficult times. Knowing that others are praying for our church and that they stand ready to offer counsel and resources when we hit a snag is so comforting. We're in this great enterprise together!

You certainly see that in Paul's endeavor to motivate and organize all the other fellowships to raise funds to help the poor, famine-stricken Christians back in the original mother church in Jerusalem. Read it for yourself in I Corinthians 16:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 8-9. This massive gesture of generosity revealed a team spirit. It spoke of a commitment to see that all the churches were equally strong and equipped and prepared to do battle against our one common enemy, the Devil. Lots of fishing boats. Just one fleet. It makes little sense for congregations to try to go it alone in the hostile environment of today's culture when there is strength in partnership. It's foolish and a waste of precious time and actually sinful for individual assemblies to compete for numbers and dollars simply to look more "successful" than the church down the road when we're all engaged in the same task of pushing back the tides of evil and could accomplish a whole lot more by working with one another! Small and large churches, BGAV and SBCV churches, traditional and more contemporary churches , all standing arm-in-arm against the forces of darkness.

And don't forget the blessing that comes from simple fellowship with others in the united effort. The laughter and the occasional commiseration and the tears and the insights and the "iron sharpening iron" effect that comes when we're willing to bond together. Paul could tell you a lot about that, too. A glance at those points in his letters where he mentions lots of names of persons in various congregations that he knew and had been enriched by and impacted indicates that he realized that there is reciprocal benefit from shared ministry (Romans 1:11-12)in Christ. An association provides a structure for us to make many friends and constantly, creatively hone our skills and strategies in doing God's work. In Romans 16:3-4 Paul refers to Priscilla and Aquila and notes their hard work and sacrifice and example-setting, and indicates that their labors were known and appreciated by "all the churches of the Gentiles" which says to me that we get role models and fresh vision and renewed boldness when we cooperate together.

Let's hang in there, Peninsula Baptists! In fact, let's deepen our ties.

It's a joy to try to be of some help during these days.