Monday, December 28, 2009

Post Yuletide Reflections

What will you do after Christmas?

Now that this wonderful, magical season has come and gone, how will you spend the new year fast approaching?

In Matthew 2 we are given both good and bad examples of how to move into and live in a new 12-month period. During Advent we took a look at the characters of that first Christmas depicted in this chapter and discovered what they did in response to the birth of Jesus. Now it might be good to consider how they behaved after all those amazing events surrounding Christ's nativity took place.

Regrettably, according to verses 16-18, Herod decided not to change at all. He had been cruel, malicious, proud, and vengeful before Jesus came into the world and continued on that track following the realization that a long-awaited Messiah had now indeed been born. In his jealous aim to get rid of what he saw as a potential threat to his throne, he ordered the ruthless slaughter of little children in Bethlehem. Though we will surely not match the extremity and severity of his evil, we will imitate his approach to life if we do not resolve to make some alterations in our thinking and in our conduct as we step over into 2010. Are there habits that need to be jettisoned? Relationships that need to be mended? Lifestyle patterns that ought to be adopted? Stinkin' thinking that should be corrected? Ugly attitudes to be confessed and forsaken?

We could really learn something here from the Magi. Verse 12 tells us that after visiting and worshipping the child Jesus, they returned to their homeland a different way.

When you genuinely draw close to Christ and walk with Him, you find that it is impossible to live the same old way you always have. You continually make adjustments as you seek to please Him. The beginning of a new year is a naturally opportune time for evaluation and redirection.Spending some hours before the curtain falls on 2009 to meditate and reflect on fresh courses of action to take as the calendar page turns would probably do us far more good than reveling and putting on party hats and watching the ball drop at midnight New Year's Eve!

And from Mary and Joseph we can pick up the lesson that you can expect the unexpected as time unfolds. After all the exhilaration accompanying the nativity of Jesus, with the angels and shepherds and wise men celebrating His arrival, comes the sudden middle-of-the night summons to get up and take the family and escape to Egypt for the safety of the child from Herod's wrath. Life changed so quickly! These parents were obedient to the divine command, however, and immediately at that. Joseph paid attention to God's warning, made the unplanned move, adapted to the transition and to changes in his day-to-day routines, and stayed tuned in to the Lord for detailed guidance in how to proceed. Read it for yourself in verses 13-15 and 19-23. From the thrill and excitement of that first Christmas to the nitty-gritty of protecting and rearing the treasure who is Jesus these earthly parents were thrust.

They offer us a positive model for personal growth and maturity in the next 12 months. Understand that God is committed to our protection and progress. Listen to Him as He speaks through scripture and sermons and godly counsel from others. Remember that not everything will be easy. There will be some pain and heartache and twists and turns(Mary would later recall Simeon's words in Luke 2:35). Be obedient at the first mention of God's will about something to stop, or something to start. Move forward in confidence even when you can't see all of the picture in advance(verses 21-23). Like Mary and Joseph, realize that having and being with Jesus is worth all the sacrifices that may have to be made.

Have a happy, blessed, and stretching new year!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Messages

I thoroughly enjoyed the new Disney animated motion picture, "A Christmas Carol" a few weeks ago.

It is the latest in a long line of movie remakes of the classic short novel by Charles Dickens, first published in 1843. The simple but powerful story is about how the crotchety, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed one Christmas Eve night from greedy, selfish, hardheartedness into a joyful, caring, generous individual as a result of some dreams and visions in his sleep about his past, present, and future. It is the quintessential secular holiday narrative. It's loved by kids and adults alike. It packs a punch with its basic theme.

Admittedly, there are some theological flaws here. For one thing, it's never stated that Scrooge's tight-fisted, unsympathetic behavior springs from a fallen human nature. We know that Ephesians 2:1-3 and Titus 3:3 and Romans 3:23 and 5:12 and Mark 7:20-23 and numerous other biblical texts make it clear that we are all sinners who inherited a sin nature from Adam and are thus inclined to commit acts of sin. We need a total heart change! Read Psalm 51.

The plot also sorta leaves the impression that Ebenezer's dramatic transformation comes about solely because he gets some illumination(that sounds a little bit like the old Gnostic heresy) and because he decides to turn over a new leaf and start doing good deeds for other people. That's a works righteousness. We do need to see the light and hear the truth(John 1:5-9 and Romans 10:14-17) but in order to be saved we must be born again, born from above(John 3:3-8). That doesn't happen by our efforts or desire to reform but by the work of the Holy Spirit in applying God's salvation to us on the inside. A completely regenerated heart will then be different and our conduct will change.

Okay, okay, I know Dickens' work is just a story. And we should be grateful for it since it lifts high some significant values and truths. It is something of a window into crucial insights that people need.

It certainly reminds us that second chances are possible in life. That's incredibly good news.

It also demonstrates that sometimes it takes difficult, painful experiences to wake us up, to get us thinking, to help us see ourselves for what we really are, and to stir us to change. Scrooge's night time visitations were anything but pleasant. They got his attention, though. Often God uses tragedy or failures or sickness or loss to move us to listen.

When all is said and done, relationships are most important. Money never ultimately satisfies. It can be stolen or lost. You can't take it with you when you die. You can use it to be a blessing in others' lives and thus send it on ahead of you to Heaven as treasure there(Matthew 6:19-21 and Luke 16:9). A lot of "Tiny Tims" may meet us and thank us.

Enjoy people this Christmas. Your family, your co-workers, your fellow church members. Delight in the parties and get-togethers. Give to the needy. Laugh. Thrill to beautiful seasonal music. Show forth the life and light and joy and peace of Jesus.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Insights From The Men Who Followed The Light In The Night

I think all of us get re-fascinated with the story of the wise men in Matthew 2 at this time of year.

For us there is great sentimental value in the narrative. For Matthew this true account afforded him an opportunity to foreshadow the eventual fulfilment of ancient prophecy that Gentiles would come to Christ in large numbers from all over the world.

I find some helpful lessons for life and leadership here. Some personal applications show up.

For starters, when you are called to a place of service, recognize that God has been preparing you for a long time. These pagan men, perhaps from Persia, had been exposed to Old Testament scriptures because Jews, living there since Daniel's time, had probably talked about them. Maybe Numbers 24:17 was a text they mentioned. The Lord uses a variety of people and situations to shape and equip us for future ministry. He doesn't call us and then abandon us.
To be effective in Kingdom work, we've got to be willing to take some risks. These pilgrims boldly decided to embark on a long, long journey with lots of uncertainties because they really wanted to see this long-predicted new king. Sometimes churches need to think and act outside the box. All of us need to consider getting out of our comfort zones and going on that overseas mission trip, perhaps, or helping plant a new church, or using our retirement years on some big projects for the Master. These men would've missed a lot had they settled for ease in their land.
Wise leaders understand that you should never fear where the truth leads you. These seekers stirred up the waters when they rode into Jerusalem and started asking questions about the birth of a new ruler nearby. Confusion, anxiety, and Herod's hostility resulted. God used all of that, though, to bring about the completing of His purposes. Sometimes secrets and lies and unhealthy systems and tradition-based but unproductive programs have to be brought into the light, exposed, examined, and jettisoned in order for a fresh work of God to begin. Painful? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely. Whether we like it or not, occasionally the boat has to be rocked.
This story certainly reminds us that the scriptures are to be our final authority. The Magi got their most crucial, reliable information about the location of little Jesus from those Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem who went back and delved into the Old Testament prophecies, like Micah 5:2, that announced where the Messiah would be born. Then the seekers proceeded on in confidence and joy until they found Him in Bethlehem. It is essential that we immerse ourselves in the Bible if we would experience a fulfilling Christian walk or be strong spiritual leaders. If our priority is worshipping and pleasing Jesus as these men did we will find contentment and victory in our journey. The star was helpful, but the scriptures gave a precise, clear word.
These travelers also remind us that it is good to leave something of value behind us as we move through life. In an act of adoration, these guys placed gold, frankincense, and myrrh in front of this small child. As symbolic and significant as these gifts were in themselves, they were probably used in a very practical way by Mary and Joseph to provide the financial resources needed for that emergency trip to Egypt they had to make to protect Jesus from Herod's wrath. In our estate planning, we should remember the Lord's work. In our day to day lives, as we turn loose of things and give them away, whether books or artworks or tools or dollars, we must trust that the Lord will bring good out of them for others. As we share toward the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, we should rejoice that our missionaries are being helped.
And by all means, remember that how you finish is important. That's true of a ministry. It's true of life itself. The wise men did not slack off in their listening to God's revelation after they had visited Jesus.They heeded God's voice as it came in a dream and altered their return travel plans. They refused to compromise the safety of young Jesus. They were willing to change course. Beginning a career or a task or a life with flair and energy and determination is good, but staying at it with faithfulness and consistency all the way to the end is to be prized. These pilgrims could be justifiably proud when they got back home because not only had they started off with a bang on the trip of a lifetime, and not only had they actually spent time with the Messiah, they had been obedient and used in the hands of God to further His divine program. A celebration at a conclusion is a lot more satisfying than a party at a launch. Hearing the Lord's "well done, thou good and faithful servant" will mean much more than the temporary relief we might get from quitting a difficult job and throwing in the towel because not enough people are noticing or appreciating us.

Have a very Merry Christmas. It's a joy serving among you.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Helpful Reading

When the wise men, following a star, traveled hundreds of miles to find the long awaited Christ child, they stopped in Jerusalem to ask questions and get further directions.

The Jewish religious leaders there searched their ancient scriptures and were able to tell the inquiring pilgrims that the predicted location for the baby's birth was nearby Bethlehem.

The reading of those helpful materials provided crucial information for these journeying seekers and gave them the inspiration they needed to continue their quest.

Perhaps during the hectic rush of this holiday season you're searching for some good books to nourish your spirit. Maybe with the shorter days and longer nights of this time of year you'd like to devote a little more attention to reading. Or it could be that you'd like to purchase some quality, soul-refreshing writings to give as gifts to friends or family at Christmas. The right kinds of books can make a real difference in our lives.

Allow me to recommend some works that have enriched me personally.

Timothy Keller's Counterfeit Gods(Dutton, 2009) is all about the idols we make of money, sex, and power and how they can never really satisfy the hungry soul. Keller's last offering, The Prodigal God(Dutton, 2008) is also a worthwhile read that will spiritually encourage you.

Looking for some counsel on distressing personal issues? Two books by well-known people-helper June Hunt blend biblical teachings with psychological insights to provide wise advice. Her Counseling Through The Bible Handbook(Harvest House, 2008) and How To Handle Your Emotions(Harvest House, 2008) both deal with concerns like depression, fear, anger, grief, and loneliness. Eating disorders, dysfunctional family styles, sexual problems and a variety of other topics get discussed, too. Healing The Scars Of Emotional Abuse(Revell, 2009) by Dr. Gregory Jantz skillfully outlines how to recover from the various types of abuse we may have experienced in the past and how to handle the negative stuff we sometimes get from other people in the present.

Anything by Philip Yancey is always thought-provoking. His newest book, Grace Notes(Zondervan, 2009) is a compilation of some of his writings over the years placed in a daily devotional kind of format and touching on a wide range of soul concerns.

If you want a work with some intellectual muscle try The End Of Christianity(B&H Publishers, 2009) by Christian philosopher William Dembski. It grapples with the problem of evil in light of the Christian conviction that God is good, and traces evil back to the Fall with some scholarly reasonings. This book, like those by Lee Strobel and Ravi Zacharias, is a good apologetic tool to assist the believer in defending the faith.

Hunting for a new Bible for yourself or someone else this Christmas? I'd suggest buying a study edition since you'd not only get the text but hundreds of helpful explanatory notes as well. My favorite is the ESV Study Bible(Crossway, 2008). It's packed with very illuminating information. It's thick, and a little expensive, but a fabulous investment.

My top recommendation this time around is Randy Alcorn's If God Is Good(Multnomah, 2009). It is a rich, full, warm examination from a biblical perspective of the pain, evil, and suffering in our world. Alcorn looks at it from a wide variety of angles. He uses a lot of illustrations and presents dozens and dozens of encouraging principles. If you can only read one book this year, it probably ought to be this one! It will greatly expand your vision.

You may recognize Alcorn's name since he also wrote the bestselling work Heaven(Multnomah, 2004). That book is still available and is the best offering on that subject I've ever seen. He answers, from scripture and from sanctified imagination, tons of questions about the Christian's eternal home. His basic premise is that Heaven will be a place of meaningful activity and fulfilment, not an everlasting retirement village where we sit on clouds and strum harps! James L. Garlow and Keith Wall present a very similar picture in their Heaven And The Afterlife(Bethany House, 2009). In this shorter work they take up a lot of inquiries about Heaven, Hell, angels, demons, and death.

For the lover of biographies, there's John Piper's new book, Filling Up The Afflictions Of Christ(Crossway, 2009). This brief but interesting volume tells the story of three great Christians, William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton, and how they endured much and suffered greatly for their faith.

Do something good for yourself. Imitate the wise men of Matthew's Gospel this Christmas by not being afraid to stop and ask questions. You may find the answers to those questions on the pages of a good book!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Miscellany 2

EVANGELISM AND DISCIPLESHIP: I am gratified at your response to Dr. Bob Davis and his message the other Sunday. I got some very favorable comments regarding his ministry among us. Bob is a good friend. I guess I've known him for 30 years now. The Lord has used him all over our country as he has preached the simple gospel.

Dr. Davis is an evangelist. That means his primary task is reaching the lost, preaching the news of salvation in Jesus to them. In Ephesians 4 Paul mentions that evangelists are gifts to the churches to assist them in witnessing to unbelievers. Congregations ought to bring in these guys from time to time as they are divinely skilled to help gather in the harvest.

The giftings and role of a pastor are a little different. Even though he should occasionally "do the work of an evangelist"(2 Timothy 4:5) his major responsibility is developing the saints, those who are already Christians. He is to feed and instruct them. Disciple them. Guide them. Build them up in the faith so that they become strong, solid, serving, Christ-like followers of the Master. His sermons will usually not be of the same type as those of the evangelist. Theoretically he should be offering deeper, stronger stuff. If he does his job some soulwinners will eventually spring up from within the church.

After one has been evangelized(gotten saved, become a Christian) he should advance and progress and mature as a disciple. So assemblies benefit from the unique ministries of both kinds of servants in reaching and then strengthening converts. It is likely that we will invite Bob back to be with us again at some future time. We'll use other evangelists as well. Between their visits let's study and dig and pray and get stretched and grow to become all that God wants us to be spiritually.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Yesterday I was perusing a Christian book in a local bookstore and was impressed with it and almost bought it. Something kept me from doing so. Later, at home, I got to reflecting. I think I already have that book. This morning I started searching through all my stacks and sure enough, I had purchased that work, a few years back! I found it. That set off more reflection. A spiritual lesson emerged. How many people are longing for something to fill their souls and relieve the emptiness and are trying anything and everything to be happy when all the time what they crave most is so close at hand(Romans 10:5-13)? It's Jesus we really need. Isaiah 55:1-3 is a great text on this. Booze and drugs and wild partying and promiscuous sex can never ultimately satisfy. Trying to find love in an extramarital affair when genuine intimacy can be found right at home with one's spouse(Proverbs 5) or seeking to discover fulfilment by overwork at the office or plant when incredible joy can be yours right in your house by building stronger relationships with your kids are foolish pathways. By the way, not that it matters to this discussion, but just in case you're wondering, the book I rediscovered in my own dwelling is Dallas Willard's neat work on developing Christ-like character, The Renovation Of The Heart(NavPress, 2002).

Saturday morning I literally wept through almost 2 hours of the show on HGTV called Extreme Makeover:Home Edition. A large group of designers and builders and just ordinary folks built, from scratch, in one week's time, a palatial new house for a widowed young pastor's wife with 5 kids who had been living in an old inadequate trailer. And they refashioned that trailer, too, and gave it to another impoverished single-parent family, much to their surprise and joy. I fell in love with that TV program! It set me to cogitating. When I saw all those volunteers united in purpose, working on a common task, each with their particular talents and abilities, laboring hard and quickly, I believe I got a glimpse of what church ought to be like. We are to be builders, you know(1 Corinthians 3, 1 Peter 2:4-6). Building our individual lives up on the inside but also constructing, under God, a spiritual, ever-growing congregation. And, it's good, too, for a fellowship to every now and then perhaps do a big hands-on, physical labor kind of project to help people. In eternity we'll still be constructing things(Isaiah 65:21-22). I can't wait to travel throughout the universe designing and building homes to the glory of God...even though I don't know the first thing about hammers, nails, lumber, and saws now!!!!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


SERMON FLIPSIDES: In my message on October 18 I talked about how God is spirit and thus invisible, without boundaries or limits(John 1:18, 4:24; I John 4:12). I made the statement that because God is not confined to one place, and genuine worship is not based on location, that it is thus possible to commune with the Lord and praise Him on the golf course or in a boat on the lake or in a cabin in the mountains on Sunday mornings. One does not have to be in a church building. God is omnipresent and can receive our worship anywhere. But now let me qualify that so as not to be misunderstood! If one just uses that truth as a convenient excuse for avoiding faithful church attendance, and gets out in those natural settings and thinks of a thousand other things than God, and is not intentional about spending time with Him, then this insight has been misinterpreted and misapplied. Elijah had perhaps his greatest encounters with the Lord in the outdoors(1 Kings 18 and 19) but he was focused on spiritual realities while there. And don't forget that even though it might actually enhance our closeness to God to occasionally worship Him out among the trees and flowers and hillsides and singing birds, we are commanded to regularly assemble with other believers in corporate praise and fellowship and instruction(Hebrews 10:25). Not to do so is sin.
In my October 25th sermon from Luke 14:7-14, I preached about the comments of Jesus on humility. At a banquet He was attending He noticed the jockeying for position and the rush to get the best seats and the attempts to be seen at prominent tables with popular people. He warned that it could prove ultimately embarrassing to stake out the front, head- table, most- noticed dining spots if you subsequently had to be reassigned to a more obscure part of the banquet hall. It would be far better to go in to the affair humbly, quietly, unobtrusively, and pick a back corner seat and perhaps be pleasantly, serendipitously surprised by the host's invitation to move closer to more choice accomodations. Jesus is making the point that we should live with such inner contentment and healthy self-esteem that we don't have to be first in line or recognized or applauded or seen hobnobbing with the most glamorous people in order to feel good about ourselves. The kingdom principle is that humility(not prized much in our culture) usually leads to promotion or exaltation. But here's a caveat. Don't see this teaching from Jesus as discouraging us, in the proper settings, from getting seats near the front! If you're in a tour group, stand as near to the guide as possible, so you can hear the information and ask questions. In school, sit up in the front of the classroom to avoid distractions and to glean as much knowledge as possible. it comes. In church take your seat in one of those first 4 or 5 front pews so you can be fully engaged in all that's going on!

READING TIPS: June Hunt's book, How To Handle Your Emotions(Harvest House, 2008) deals with anger, fear, grief and depression from a scriptural basis. It offers clear, helpful counsel. Healing The Scars Of Emotional Abuse(Revell, 2009) by Gregory Jantz discusses how to recover from the various types of abuse we may have experienced in the past and how to handle the negative stuff we sometimes get from other people in the present. Tim Keller's new work, Counterfeit Gods(Dutton, 2009) is about the idols we make of money, sex, and power, and how they can never satisfy the hungry soul.

CHRISTMAS PRESENTS: If you're going to buy a new Bible as a yuletide gift for a friend or family member this year, let me encourage you to purchase a study edition so that helpful explanatory notes can be found alongside the text. My recommendations? Either the new Transformation Study Bible(David C. Cook, 2009) with its great notes from Warren Wiersbe or The ESV Study Bible(Crossway, 2008). Both are rich treasures!

THANKS! You made Pastor Appreciation Month so special for me.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Shepherd's Staff

A church that lovingly and generously takes care of its staff is generally a happier, healthier, more productive congregation.

It's important to be a blessing in the lives of those whom God gives to us to lead us and assist us in the work of ministry.

The Apostle Paul apparently believed that. In 1 Corinthians 16:10-11 he encourages the believers to receive Timothy, to treat him well, and to back him up in his Christian labors. In Ephesians 4 Paul seems to suggest that pastors and staffers are gifts provided to local assemblies to strengthen them in their efforts at maturing and multiplying. A church that lavishly bestows hospitality and graciousness and provision on those in kingdom work will usually find favor and good things coming back to it.

A strong, grace-filled fellowship will see to it that its staff is well-compensated. When full-time Christian servants don't have to worry and struggle financially they usually are freer to joyfully work harder and more effectively in the Lord's vineyard. A wise and caring congregation will thus take the time to study to see if its salary packages are competitive and fair and keeping pace. To call upon Paul again, it's interesting that he discusses pay issues for church leaders in passages like I Timothy 5:17-18 and Galatians 6:6 and I Corinthians 9. Local assemblies that put lots of funds into facilities or send much money overseas but keep co-workers in anxiety about making ends meet may not be practicing good stewardship or careful obedience to Christ.

Loving churches will also see the value in appropriately recognizing and honoring faithful staff members from time to time, especially on their anniversaries of service. Doing so gives a fellowship the chance to celebrate what that person's ministry has meant. It gives a church the opportunity to express thanks for a job well done. Notes or letters of encouragement, taking staffers out for a meal, and even occasional small gifts convey appreciation and respect and affection. Once more Paul offers guidance, this time in I Thessalonians 5:12-13. To ignore this counsel is sin. Actually when a local assembly heaps kindness and delights on a loyal worker it ends up awash in those blessings itself, as Romans 12:15 indicates. Congregational health is fostered, unity is enhanced, and joy blossoms.

Are ministers and staffers in some churches overpaid? Sure. Are there professional workers in some fellowships who are arrogant and proud or lazy or mean-spirited? Absolutely. Is it possible that pastors and staff members serving in congregations where there is ample remuneration and abundant, tangible honor and love shown can grow calloused and comfortable and apathetic? You bet. But many, many of the church laborers across our land are vastly overworked and underpaid. Little appreciated. Lots of them feel beat up and often depressed and discouraged. The numbers are staggering of the pastors and music ministers and youth workers and even secretaries who eventually give up, quit, and never return to church work again. Most regrettably, some of them are so burned out and turned off that they don't even attend church anymore. Ever. A lot of fellowships have "blood on their hands" that they'll answer to God for.

It seems that congregations have it in their power to so love and cherish and protect their staff that the outlook and perspective of these workers can be healthy and sound for the whole course of their ministerial career, even if there are some bumps along the way. Speaking up for these folks, nipping silly rumors in the bud, supporting their initiatives, and adequately providing for them financially can enhance and extend their ministries exponentially.'ll be harder to keep good, quality staffers if we don't. They'll constantly be polishing up their resumes, looking for some new field where maybe they'll receive kinder treatment. And mark it down--it'll probably be tougher and a lot more expensive to secure their replacements!

Thursday, August 6, 2009


The New Testament book of Acts is filled with transitions.

There's the switch from the visible ministry of the physical Jesus to the invisible but powerful work of the Holy Spirit. There's the gradual, outward movement of the Christian witness from Jerusalem to other areas and eventually to Rome. The shift from gospel proclamation going for Jews only to later include Gentiles as well is highly significant. The change from the preeminence of Peter's influence early on in the book to the increasing impact of Paul's work is obvious.

A case study of one transition in this exciting book shows up in Acts 1:15-26 as the small band of disciples tries to adjust to the ascension/departure of the resurrected Christ and the defection/suicide of Judas. What will this group do now? How will they carry out their mission to evangelize the world?

Peter steps up and convenes a meeting. He openly and honestly lays out the facts of the situation. He stresses that this band of believers must move on and advance forward. He calls for a replacement to be selected for Judas and indicates that the choice needs to be made carefully. The group deliberates with keen spiritual discernment plus common sense, decides on a course of action, and then prays, leaving the ultimate results in God's hands. This first real test of the strength of their fellowship and their organization ends successfully.

I think it is true that Christians and churches are living today in Acts 29. For us, transitions are just as inevitable as they were for our spiritual forebears.

We're experiencing some of that right now in our wonderful Peninsula Baptist Association.

Since October, 2007 we've been in an interim period. Just recently, after prolonged study and discussion, we officially made the shift from an older model of getting the churches to do the association's work to a whole new paradigm of viewing the association as a resource for enabling and assisting and equipping and partnering with congregations in doing their own particular and unique ministries. The analysis and conversations and questions and vote were all positive. Now we are trying to begin the process of fleshing all of this out as it relates to staffing alignment and services offered.

We're also transitioning from one Director of Missions to another. We miss Jim Ailor and the good men who served before him, but we now build upon the great foundation they left us and eagerly look forward to the individual God is preparing to lead us in the future. Your Interim Leadership and Admin and Retreat Board Teams have been attempting to wisely, gently guide the association in steadily working through a host of issues(office relocation, Seafarer ministry and building, Eastover potential, best configuration of staff, etc.) so that when the next DOM is called all of these matters will be settled and our new leader can hit the ground running in effective, strategic leadership.

I sincerely believe that throughout we've tried to follow the Acts 1:15-26 pattern. There have been open-and-above board presentations of facts and needs and options. Healthy, positive, motivational challenges have been shared and gracious, cooperative, joy-filled meetings have been held. Some wise, forward-thinking decisions have been made. Much prayer has gone heavenward and the results are in the hands of our awesome God. It's been an interesting and productive period. It's not over just yet, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Your patience and understanding is certainly appreciated. Much gratitude goes out to Eddie Heath for his incredible visioning and guiding during this process.

Now we stand on tip toe, watching to see what the Lord has in store for this great partnership of churches in the months and years up ahead!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thoughts On The Death Of Michael Jackson

The sudden, unexpected passing of the 50-year-old, legendary king of pop, Michael Jackson, has dominated the news for over 2 weeks now.

This entertainer, known for his singing and dancing, wealth, facial surgeries, child molestation charges and bizarre behavior, was quite a celebrity. His death has brought millions of fans out of the woodwork and created a media frenzy that has seemingly left no detail of his life and tragic exit unturned and unreported.

Tired of hearing about it all? I understand. But as Christians we need to attempt to put this recent happening in perspective in the light of God's Word. Some thoughts:
1. Let's not forget that this controversial star was a person created in God's image. We may not
have understood him. There may have been much about him that we didn't like and even
found repugnant, but we need to be careful in the way we talk about him. James 3:9 cautions
us about speaking disparagingly about other persons since all of us are made in God's
likeness. Believers certainly should set a higher standard in our discourse about our fellow
human beings, even when we disagree with their actions. Aren't we supposed to be
discerning? You bet. Aren't there times when we must speak out against the wrongs of
another individual? Certainly. But we must converse with grace and restraint. We earthlings
are all in the same boat when it comes to propensity to evil deeds. Christians are just blessed
to have received the electing, forgiving mercy of the Lord to atone for our sins.

2.I wonder about who we are choosing to be our heroes these days. Mr. Jackson had millions of
adoring admirers worldwide who lapped up his albums and fawned and shrieked and cried
and applauded over him in his concerts. Though obviously talented, was he really the
greatest entertainer of all time? Some have even implied that he was the greatest person
to have ever lived. It concerns me that nowadays we tend to elevate rock stars and
Hollywood folks and athletes to the status of heroes simply because they titillate us or make
us laugh or give us a good show. Our kids are learning to swoon over these fascinating people
despite their moral or ethical or serious psychological lapses. They can roll off film titles and
sports stats and song lyrics but can't remember more than 3 or 4 of the Ten Commandments
or name 5 of the 12 disciples or list 3 of the fruits of the Spirit or recite the Lord's Prayer.
Sadly, significant persons like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford,
and Ronald Reagan are getting lost in the shuffle as young people today swarm around
dazzling media sensations instead.

Yes, I know. Regrettably, the preachers and the politicians and the corporate executives,
those people we used to look up to as moral exemplars and patterns of success, have often
let us down. One scandal after another involving those types has set our heads spinning and
deeply disappointed us and left us wondering if there are any heroes to be found anymore.
Maybe that's part of the reason why young people have gone off after shallow,
lowest-common-denominator, intellectually challenged, often morally bankrupt pop icons to
talk endlessly about and seek to emulate. It must seem to our kids that at least with those
scintillating personalities there is no hypocrisy.

I keep coming back to Psalm 101, though. There David discusses the standards he has
personally set for those he will admire and those he will reject as potential role models.
Verses 4 and 6 are particularly helpful. I believe that in our day there are still persons out
there who are worthy of our respect and honor. People from whom we can learn. Folks who
can stimulate us and motivate us to be all that we can be. Individuals who don't tantalize us
and make us feel good but rather stretch us to reach higher and be more than we are now.

3.After what I've observed during these 2 weeks of hype over Michael Jackson, it's easy for me
to see how an Antichrist figure could arise in the future and be well received. Watching clips
of Jackson's old concerts where crowds are worked up to near hysteria, screaming, shouting,
crying, arms-in-the-air, and then witnessing the adulation and almost worshipping of this
man following his death, it's a little clearer to me how someone with charisma, offering hope
and peace and unity, and displaying extraordinary skill, could manipulate and entice a whole
generation of searching, empty people. The Book of Revelation, the first epistle of John, and 2
Thessalonians 2 seem to speak of a coming world ruler, evil to the core, who will mesmerize
the nations and lead them in opposition to Christ. Revelation 13 even describes his being
worshipped. Sound far-fetched in our sophisticated era? You been to a rock concert lately?

Sure. There are lots of differing interpretations on the Book of Revelation and endtimes
prophecy. I'm just saying that if the futurist view is the correct one, what we are seeing
these days may be the precursor and laying the groundwork for a soon-coming scenario
where an Antichrist could be readily accepted and embraced. Mr. Jackson's style and
approach was simply entertainment but isn't it possible that his enchantment was one more
step along the way of molding and shaping minds to psychologically get to the place where it
would be acceptable to wholeheartedly welcome someone in the future who would come
forward on the international scene with great promise...and great promises? Someone
pledging wonderful things for the world while defiantly rebelling against God?

4. We can only hope that Michael knew Christ before going out into eternity. Now we ought to
pray for his family, especially those children. Many heartaches and decisions and
uncertainties lie ahead for them.

Friday, June 26, 2009


*What a week this has been.

From the mysterious disappearance of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and his explosive subsequent confession of an extramarital affair to the deaths of 3 major entertainment figures, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson, to the ongoing struggle in Iran, we've been pretty much glued to the TV and internet over the last several days trying to get all the details.

It's a little depressing. A lot more bad news than we'd like.

As Christians we need to attempt to put all this gloomy stuff in perspective in the light of God's Word. Some thoughts:
1. We live in a fallen world. There's so much that is good and beautiful and
wholesome in this universe that God made, but because of Adam's sin
(Genesis 3) we've been plunged into a downward spiral of evil, disease, decay,
and death. By His sacrifice on the Cross Jesus has started the restoration
process, but for now we find ourselves on a planet ravaged by sin and
destruction. Radically messed up.

2. We each have an appointment with death(Hebrews 9:27). Doesn't matter how
rich, famous, talented, or attractive you are, you will someday breathe your
last. Death is the great equalizer. You really don't get to choose the time and
circumstances of your departure from this world. Those 3 megastars had
their brief day in the sun and then the inevitable summons came. I sure hope
they were prepared to meet God. Eternity is forever.

3. Each of us is vulnerable to temptation and sin. Regardless of how
conservative or spiritual we are, or think we are, we can potentially stumble
or drift into some moral or ethical failure. Politicians and preachers are not
immune. Neither are you. 1 Corinthians 10:12 needs to be heeded. Before we
get too critical of Gov. Sanford, we ought to pause and remember that
without putting in place strong safeguards, we are just as prone to fall as he
was. Judah(Genesis 38) was highly condemnatory of Tamar's sexual sin
until his own indiscretion was revealed. Same thing with David in 2 Samuel
12 when Nathan told him a story that got his judgemental juices flowing big
time until his own heinous sin was exposed.

4. We need to be careful that we don't consume a steady diet of just negative
news each day(war, terrorism, child kidnappings,etc.). That's a sure
prescription for discouragement and even fear. It's important for us to also
reflect on the attributes of God. The glories of the Gospel. The wonders of
Christ. The prospect of our eternal destiny. Immerse yourself in scripture
and in fellowship with other believers. Think about good things(Philippians
4:8) such as lovely art, gorgeous music, beautiful scenery, and precious

*I'm loving the seasonal flowers I'm being given for my desk. Gardenias(Bensons, Lucy, and Dot Newton) and now a big, bright sunflower(Betty Deans). God's handiwork on display!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sermon Redux

As so often happens, the point I most wanted to emphasize in a sermon got short shrift because time ran out Sunday.

I was preaching on fathering from Proverbs 4:1-9 about how Solomon attempted to pass on to his children the wisdom he had received from his own dad, King David. This wisdom was probably both practical and spiritual in nature, and Solomon wanted his kids to know how valuable it was and how crucial it would be to obtain it.

I attempted to say, from verses 8 and 9, that it is absolutely essential for us as parents to plant positive images in the minds of our children about Christianity and church and for us to paint pictures of success in their thinking about the future. I was talking about cultivating their spiritual imagination. About scripture-based visualization. Solomon used beautiful poetic imagery to do that. The Genesis patriarchs would accomplish that with their words in passing on a blessing to their sons.

Rather than transmitting to our kids by our statements and our actions that our faith is a drudgery and a duty, we need to speak and live before them the reality that knowing and walking with God is a joy and a privilege beyond measure. If they never hear us pray and never see us reading the Bible and only catch us bemoaning the negative stuff that sometimes happens at church it shouldn't surprise us that they possess no real desire for the Christian life or for congregational involvement.

Instead of belittling them or dashing their hopes or telling them that they'll never amount to much, we ought to be using our words to encourage our kids. To lift them. To inspire them toward great exploits. To cast mental pictures and visions of possibility for them if they will seek the Lord and His ways(Proverbs 3:5-6). Even in these dark days of economic distress and international tension we need to lay out for our children a positive view of the future that calls them to rise to the occasion and be leaders and shapers who will step up to the plate and interact with our crumbling culture and be a powerful influence for good. Jesus did that. He said we are to be salt and light in the midst of our pagan environment. He was both a realist and an optimist.

Solomon's passionate paternal counsel to his sons reminds us that we can't just leave our children to themselves and hope for the best. We must pass on to them critical life skills like etiquette and how to handle money and build quality relationships. We need to teach them how to make decisions and the steps to take to avoid temptations. We should model for them the value of hard work(not overwork, though) and the rewards of diligent study. Perhaps using Proverbs as our manual, we should instruct them in developing a godly character by practicing all the traits described there. Above all else, we must gradually lead them to understand that the most important thing in life is being connected to God through His Son, Jesus Christ. There can finally be no real fulfilment if we remain lost, dead in our sins, and unrelated to our Creator.

Our confidence in our kids will help build their self-confidence. Say what you will about Jacob's parenting skills(Genesis 37), he must have done something right with at least one of his sons, Joseph, in order to foster within him an inner picture of how his future would make a difference in the lives of others. With our love and attentiveness and wise counsel we can have that kind of formative impact on the destiny of the little ones God has entrusted to our care. By daring them to dream big dreams and by pointing out to them how to methodically take the preparatory steps to get there we can leave an incredible legacy. And by the way, grandparents can get in on this molding business, too. Solomon's tender reference in Proverbs 4 to his father proves that!

There are a lot of things we have to tell our children that they can't do. Let's be sure that we also instill in them an exhilirating sense of all the wonderful things they can do. Let's try to say "Yes!"even more often than we say "No!" to our boys and girls who, in a few years, will be running this world and need to be courageous and unafraid and willing to take some risks to bring about productive results.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


The other Sunday in a sermon I mentioned that studying the attributes of God is a very worthwhile endeavor.

As we examine God's characteristics, qualities, and perfections we get to know Him better and sense a stronger pull to be like Him. We also feel more secure and at peace in our spirits. Just thinking about God's goodness and wisdom and holiness and sovereignty and providence and love is enough to get us rejoicing. Then throw in His omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Don't forget His unchangeableness, either, or His eternalness and His invisibility and His independance. Wow. What a great God we worship and serve.

Our worship will be constricted if we have only a weak, inadequate understanding of God's nature. Our obedience to, and service for, Him will be anemic and lackluster unless we really hunger to know Him intellectually and experientially.

Courses in systematic theology in seminaries and Bible colleges devote a lot of attention to the doctrine of God and His qualities. Bible teachers and theologians through the centuries have preached, taught, and written extensively about what God is like. I referred to the great Puritan preacher Stephen Charnock(1628-1680) who penned the massive Existence And Attributes Of God. Arthur Pink(1886-1952) wrote a much smaller but nevertheless valuable work, The Attributes Of God. In our own day, Wayne Grudem has discussed this topic thoroughly among other chapters in his textbook, Systematic Theology(Zondervan, 1994). As you might expect, all of this is heavy reading but rich and rewarding. Potentially faith-building and life-transforming, too.

We are now concluding our Midweek Fellowship(Wednesday evening) series of studies on the "one another" statements of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul, John, Peter, and James to include these sayings in their writings. You've seen them, scattered about the epistles. Serve one another. Pray for one another. Confess your sins to each other. Encourage and admonish one another. Greet and show hospitality to each other. Undergirding all of these is the challenge to love one another. And there are several others of those practical instructions.

These are not suggestions. They are commands. Taken seriously and consistently practiced, they will revolutionize our relationships in the body of Christ. We are given a track to run on in our interactions with fellow believers. Here is clear counsel not just on how to get along in church but on how to build deep, intimate, faith-stretching connections and ties in the family of God that will produce joy and spiritual growth.

We'd all do well to go through our New Testaments and discover and then underline each of these short but highly significant sayings, praying all the while that we'll have the grace and energy of the Holy Spirit in living them out in our age when the world around us presses its nose against the windows of our churches, looking in with the hope that it will find in our fellowships a better way to live and relate than what is out there in the self-seeking, hurried, dog-eat-dog culture.

The Southern Baptist Convention meets this week in Louisville, KY for its annual session. I'll not be attending this year since I used up most of my conference expense money to attend the very valuable John Piper Pastors' Conference in Minneapolis, MN back in the winter. This upcoming SBC gathering does promise to be interesting, though, as the messengers will discuss and vote on a document called The Great Commission Resurgence that has already been much debated. It is almost certain that Georgia pastor Johnny Hunt will be reelected to a second term as convention president. There is a lot of concern in our denomination these days about the growing exodus, or at least decreased involvement, of many younger pastors and laypeople who, while strongly committed to Christ and scripture, are upset with the narrowing theological and cooperation tents as well as a bureauracy that seems too big and outmoded in these fast-paced days. your Religious Herald and maybe even our local newspaper for coverage of the major stuff coming out of the Louisville meeting.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Meteorological Meditations

I absolutely love thunderstorms.

I didn't always.

I remember as a child that everytime the thunder roared and the lightning flashed and the rain poured, my mother, acting, I guess, out of the way she was raised, would make us 3 boys sit down and be still and quiet for the duration. Something about showing respect. That just compounded the fear that I already had at the loud noise and the sense of possible danger. If it stormed in the night I would hide my face under the pillow. Too many scary movies I'd seen on TV used threatening storms at precisely the darkest, most frightening moments and, alone, in bed, I really felt vulnerable.

Nowadays I look forward to these weather events. I delight in the way it somehow gets dark and still and silent in the late afternoon just before a storm erupts. In the middle of the night, it's neat to lay in bed and watch the lightning cause the room to glow, or hear the thunder very gradually get louder or smell the rain as it begins to fall, softly at first and then heavy in a downpour. It's fun to contemplate where that storm has been on its way to you. During the daylight hours it's awesome to observe those massive thunderheads in the sky and wait for the eventual storm. I've had the experience of flying in an airplane through those mountainous castles of vapor and up there it's even more incredible. I've long envied the people who live in the wide open spaces of the Midwest who can see these lofty clouds building long before the deluge.

This is God's work.

We're not to cringe in terror when a storm occurs but there's a sense, I suppose, in which Mama was right those many years ago--we should have a healthy respect for this meteorological phenomenon that passes our way occasionally, especially in these summer months. This is the handiwork of the Lord. His power and majesty and wonder and creativity are on display. He's giving us a gift, and a demonstration of His might and glory. Job 38, among other Bible texts, asks us to consider the mystery and the sovereignty and the omnipotence of God when we witness this weather pattern. Scientists can explain the various conditions that coalesce to bring about a storm but you have to push much, much further back, all the way to the Lord himself, to truly understand the dynamics of these towering sky happenings.

I hope that there'll be thunderstorms in Heaven! Until then, I'm gonna enjoy these free events that remind us again of how big God is, and how small we really are.

One of those storms is moving in right now. Would you excuse me, please?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Odds And Ends

*Treat yourself.
Go see the new Disney/Pixar animated film, Up, which opened May 29.
Okay, okay, I know it's animation and supposed to be for kids. But there's something in it for everybody. Awesome creativity. Neat story. Incredible detailing. It's a visual feast.
What I liked were the powerfully depicted themes of adventure-seeking and risk-taking. Of a long, rich, fulfilling marriage. Of the sobering losses that come with old age as well as the opportunities to mentor and nurture future generations. Of coming to the realization that, in looking back,we find that our best days were not the real dramatic ones but rather the mundane, routine ones that we hardly noticed in passing. I guess you could say that getting to the place where we accept the past and arriving at the point where we're best positioned for the future are two emphases beautifully illustrated in this story of a flying house, a grieving old man, and an eager but already slightly wounded young boy.
Carve out a couple of hours, get some popcorn, and enjoy this cinematic experience that just might bring a tear or two to your eyes even as you laugh. Children will get a kick out of this movie on one level, but adults will find much here on which to reflect as well.

*I had a pleasant afternoon last Sunday at, of all places, a funeral home visitation in Wakefield, VA(yes, I went to the famous Virginia Diner while I was over there!).
I went because a 92-year old cousin, a most beautiful woman in her day, had died. She was on my late mother's side of the family and I suppose I made the effort to attend the wake because this lady and my mom had been so very close growing up and, of course, my mother could not be there.
I'm glad I went.
I didn't know anyone there except for another cousin and her daughter. This cousin, much younger than my mom but growing up around her, has always been good at answering my many, many questions about the childhood and teen years of my mother. My sources for that information are now very few. And there's so much I want to know! I think I'm more inquisitive than most folks my age about the family backgrounds and history of their parents, but even so, it's sad that we sometimes wait too late to seek and dig out those memories and stories and facts of familial context that would enrich us if we knew them.
Once again I peppered this relative with my inquiries.
I have this insatiable hunger to know more and more about what my mom was like in her younger years. When I get bits and pieces of clues, I try to picture her in the imagination of my mind as to those days long before I knew her.
Dorothy came through again last Sunday with more vignettes and wispy glimmers and images of a life well-lived and thoroughly enjoyed some 70 years ago. I was reminded of how my mother loved to dance back then(something I've never been any good at). I learned for the first time that Mama really adored cats(don't get me started on that!) I also heard yet again how playful and fun-loving she was.
Each person's journey is rich and packed with treasures waiting to be unwrapped and shared by and with somebody else. All of us need to be having those deep, intimate, rewarding conversations now before the sand in the hourglass runs down and the seconds on the scoreboard run out to that final buzzer. We become fuller, deeper, riper individuals when we breathe in and revel in the stories of our loved ones.
My time in that funeral home chapel last week was not wasted.
Incidentally, it was during that trip to Wakefield that I learned, by glancing at a Petersburg newspaper headline, that a 92-year old funeral director in Colonial Heights(site of my first pastorate)had died. I well remember riding in the lead car of many a funeral procession with Alvin Small in the late 1970's and early 1980's. We talked about churches and funeral home practices and burials and cremations and all kinds of things. I learned much from him, and he was always so courteous and complimentary and encouraging to this very young(then!) preacher. He prepared me well to receive very similar responses and assistance from the always kind and gentlemanly Eddie Faulkner here in Newport News. There is something of a bond between pastors and funeral directors! We have to work together, as a team, with people who are walking through the dark valley of losing loved ones. Colonial Heights, and especially the ministers there, have lost a dear friend.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Getting Along At Home

During Christian Home Month in May, I preached a message one Sunday morning on sibling rivalry.

That familial phenomenom can be a very unpleasant thing. I recounted one episode from my childhood about a long, tiring, hot summer family vacation to East Point, GA in the early 1960's(no interstate, no car airconditioning) when my middle brother, Don, and I must have picked at and fussed with one another all day in the backseat. Upon arriving at our destination I was so exasperated, I boldly exclaimed, in front of the whole family and our hosts, "You're not my brother anymore!" And slinked away and pouted.

Fortunately that spat didn't last long and soon we were playing together again. I don't recall that there was ever much ongoing tension between us. Sure, we argued and competed like most kids do, but we pretty much got along. Now my 2 brothers are among the most admired people and closest friends in my life.

Sibling rivalry can get ugly, though. Anger, jealousy, and bitterness among brothers and sisters often leads to scheming and conniving and not speaking and frantic attempts to be first.

It's interesting that this sinful relational pattern shows up in the patriarchal stories of Genesis 12-50. The homes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were afflicted with it in dramatic ways.It appears throughout the Bible. You'll find it in Cain and Abel and in the boyhood and later families of David. There's a hint of it between the 2 sisters, Mary and Martha, in Luke 10. It's certainly displayed in the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.

This friction among siblings is perhaps most graphically demonstrated in Genesis 25:21-28 in the interplay of Jacob and Esau. It becomes clear here that in many cases parental favoritism is behind these outbreaks of rivalry in the younger set. Why is it that moms and dads often favor one child over the others? Or parents are split in their affections for the children in their home? Why is it that we don't appreciate and relish the uniquenesses of our kids, seeing them as God's gifts to us, and go on to love them all, differently but equally?

As Genesis 27:35-41 reveals, unresolved sibling rivalry can have terrible consequences. Fractured families, threats of violence, and bitter separations can result. Rebekah, who plotted and manipulated and deceived to secure a paternal blessing for her favorite son, Jacob, and then had to send him away to protect him from his brother's wrath, probably never got to see him again. What a heavy price to pay.

Jesus shows us a better way! He is, after all, our loving Elder Brother(Hebrews 2:11). In that intriguing story that he tells of a father and his 2 sons in Luke 15, he paints a picture of a beneficent dad who loved both of his boys, just in different ways. Jesus speaks of a father who took the time and made the effort to tenderly, truthfully, intimately communicate with each of his sons and delight in their presence. There was no need for rivalry in a home like that.

And Esau himself, the cheated angry sibling of Jacob in that Genesis narrative, illustrates a beautiful way to bring an end to simmering conflict between brothers. In chapter 33, he takes the initiative and moves toward his estranged sibling. God had been at work in his heart, apparently, and he evidently decided "enough is enough" and goes to meet Jacob with an embrace and tears and forgiveness and reconciliation. It is one of the most touching scenes in scripture. Somebody has to go first. Somebody has to make the attempt to break the painful cycle of distrust and suspicion and resentment. Then genuine healing can begin.

If Psalm 133:1 is true when it says "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity" then parents should foster this close, developing affection among their offspring and the steadily maturing children should perennially safeguard and maintain and cherish it. Life is too short for animosity and backbiting and division. Nothing is more satisfying than a peaceful, joyous family.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Family Secrets

Secrets in a family or church can have devastating results.

They concern those things that go on that nobody wants to talk about. They're like elephants in the room that everybody knows are there but refuse to confront. They create threatening shadows of suspicion and anxiety and tension that drain off energy and openness and joy.

Maureen McCormick could tell you something about the negative power of secrets. She's the actress who played Marcia on the TV sitcom The Brady Bunch 40 years ago. In her intriguing memoir, Here's The Story, she candidly recounts her decades-long journey through depression, drug abuse, self-image problems, and difficult relationships. She was very much unlike the ideal, happy teenager she portrayed on television and her trek into early womanhood was filled with disappointment and some destructive passages.

McCormick, now 52, traces a lot of her personal emotional pain and bad choices to an unpleasant family secret about syphilis, passed from her grandmother to her mom, that brought about severe psychological and physical effects for both of those women in Maureen's life. Maureen would only learn about this sensitive matter when she was a teen, and then simply because other family secrets generated by it started tumbling out. But she had sensed for a long time a heavy cloud over her family. Now for her there would be the stress of fear over whether she would inherit the disease. She found real solace on the set of the imaginary TV family in which she was a part since there was such friction and distress in her actual home. Even there, though,in that artificial environment, she struggled to maintain a perfectionistic image. These days, fortunately, she considers herself a survivor who has faced up to and worked through some of the bad stuff from the past. Odd, isn't it, how one little hidden secret can spin off such waste of years and lead down such lifestyle deadends.

Those things we can't bring ourselves to talk about, like abuse or alcoholism or affairs or mental illness or incest don't just go away. Sweeping them under the rug won't help. Try keeping a beach ball under the water! These family secrets have a life of their own and produce waves and vibrations of discomfort and discord that hang in the air. In churches, too, those significant issues that we've never resolved, like past conflicts or pastoral terminations or poor financial practices or episodes of immorality are unfinished business that color everything we attempt to do now and continually seem to haunt us.

This is not a new phenemenom. It shows up in the Bible, too. In fact, in the stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph in Genesis we find many illustrations of secrets that had hurtful and in some cases harmful impacts.

For instance, on at least 2 occasions, in chapters 12 and 20, Abraham and his wife Sarah travel to other places and he actually asks her to lie to the ruling authorities and say that she is his sister rather than his wife so that should those kings desire her because of her beauty, Abraham would not be put to death so that they might take her as their own. Here, by the way, is convincing proof that God uses even flawed individuals--Abraham was known as a man of great faith and yet at this point he stumbles in a kind of ugly compromise. He was putting his wife at real risk with this deception. She could have been forced into a marriage with one of those rulers, had children with him, and endangered God's promise of a line of descendants through Abraham. You have to wonder if Sarah ever really shared her heart about this cowardly act with her husband or if it just set up something of a wall between them from then on. You have to wonder, too, if they ever told their son, Isaac, about this foolish mistake when he was old enough to understand. Maybe not, because in chapter 26, years later, he himself tells the same kind of lie about his wife, Rebekah, out of fear. Talk about multi-generational transmission of bad relational patterns!

You see another type of secret in Genesis 29 where Leah, caught in a loveless marriage, never seems to be able to express her unfulfilled longing for her husband, Jacob. Given by her father, Laban, to this man who really wanted her sister and eventually got her, too, she had children by her husband but never really won his heart. It's obvious by the names she gave to their children that she talked to God about her loneliness and hurt but you get the impression that she didn't open up in a frank, intimate conversation with her spouse and disclose her deep desires and affections and yearnings for close attachment with him. She lived in real misery. Jealousy and a sense of rejection tormented her. Why is it that sometimes we go through life without having those soul-to-soul talks with those close to us that might bring such inner connection?

Leah's sister, Rachel, Jacob's other wife, forged a secret that could have had horrendous consequences. In Genesis 31 we read of how she and her whole family are fleeing from her crafty, manipulative father, Laban, to return to Jacob's homeland. She clandestinely steals some figurines, some pagan idols, from her dad's house. When Laban pursues this departing entourage and finally catches up with them, he demands the return of these little statuettes from whoever took them. Jacob knows nothing about the theft. Rachel has not told him. He boldly authorizes the death of anyone in his party found to have them, completely unaware that he is putting his wife's life in jeopardy. Through a further act of deception, Rachel manages to hide the fact of her wrongdoing and keep the images, but the outcome of this undisclosed sin could have been most unpleasant. A family could have been violently ruptured because Rachel privately coveted and took something she didn't need and shouldn't have stolen.

Perhaps the most heartwrenching secret in these Genesis narratives shows up in chapter 37. Jacob's sons, bitter and angry over his parental favoring of Joseph, whom they see as arrogant and boastful, consider killing the young man but ultimately decide to sell him into slavery. However, they lead their father to believe that his pride and joy has been killed by some wild animal. The light goes out in Jacob's soul. His grief is overpowering. He has no idea that his son is still alive. And those brothers maintain that secret for many years. Imagine the loss of transparency that now existed between these sons and their father. Try to grasp the ongoing tension that these guys lived with daily not knowing if Joseph would suddenly return. Picture the heightened suspicions that flowed among these men as they wondered if one of them would break ranks and tell their dad and expose their evil deed. They paid a price for their clinging to a secret. It would be hard to live with much zest and focus.

Ironically, and providentially, it would fall to Joseph to clean up a lot of this relational dysfunction that had wounded this family for generations. According to Genesis 39-50 this young man ended up in Egypt and after many twists and turns, ups and downs, he becomes a ruler there. When his brothers come to that country years later, seeking food in a time of famine back home, they stand before the brother they'd despised and abandoned unaware of his identity. He recognizes them, though, and begins a process of healing and reconciliation with them. It's done with tears. It's done with truth. It's done with time. This loving confrontation was hard work but Joseph took the initiative and stepped up and broke the cycle of rivalry and dishonesty and pain. The secrets were out. Everyone could breathe again. Mending of tattered relationships could take place.

Tender, open, intimate dialogue in our families and congregations could pave the way for stronger, healthier, closer ties among us. Harboring secrets keeps us in the dark and distant from each other, which in turn breeds all kinds of evil strategies and addictions and manipulations to help us cope with the insecurity and alienation that we feel. Life is so much freer and fuller and more relaxed when we're not hiding stuff. Granted, you don't want to spill the ugly garbage of a lifetime all at once and without sensitivity to the age and maturity level of your listeners, but gradually and gracefully turning loose of long locked away emotional and relational toxins will revolutionize your life. You won't have to live on pins and needles. You won't have to be constantly looking over your shoulder.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Genesis Stories And Church Health

I'm encouraged by the fact that there has been renewed emphasis in recent years on church health, not just church growth.

A sick congregation will usually find it very difficult to grow, and if it somehow manages to, it will simply be spreading toxicity.

It's interesting that some of the events in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis 12-50 illustrate inappropriate and ineffective ways to deal with issues in church life. Key personalities in those ancient stories demonstrate approaches in handling concerns that actually foster relational pathology when utilized in modern day local assemblies.

Take, for example, the destructive power of keeping secrets. Jacob could tell you a thing or two about that. In Genesis 31, his wife, Rachel, steals the set of household idols belonging to her father, Laban, as she and her family stealthily flee his home. She does not tell her husband what she has done. When Laban catches up with them and demands back the stolen figurines, Jacob authorizes the death of anyone in his party found to have them. Fortunately they are not uncovered because of further deception on Rachel's part, but this episode obviously could have ended very badly. Years later Jacob again found himself the victim of a devastating secret. In Genesis 37, some of his sons lead him to believe that his favorite son, Joseph, was killed by a wild animal when they know that he is really still alive, sold by them, in their jealousy and hatred, to slave traders. Jacob would now live in unnecessary grief and sadness and darkness. The brothers would experience a psychological wall between them and their dad, and shame and guilt and suspicions and fears among themselves. The whole family would be haunted by this for years.

In congregations where critical underlying issues are never brought up to the surface for exposure and illumination and resolution, fellowship will suffer. When only a handful of members is privy to pertinent information that could make a difference, doubts and questionings will arise and a lack of intimacy and team spirit will result. An unholy spiritual bacteria will invade the ranks that will generate distancing and loss of joy. Secrecy breeds darkness, which in turn provides a setting for all kinds of undesirable consequences.

Some churches, and the individual members who make them up, choose to run from problems. Once again, Jacob offers some insight because it seems that he was always running. In Genesis 27-28 he's fleeing his home due to the murderous rage of his brother, Esau. He gets far away, to the home of his uncle, Laban, but he finds there, in addition to some blessings, a whole new set of disturbing issues. Plus, there's still a lot of unresolved stuff inside him that hasn't been worked through yet. After many years, Jacob takes off once more, again in a clandestine way. Only a gripping encounter with God and a beautiful reconciling experience with his sibling, recorded in chapters 32-33, get him to the point where he really starts to face up to crucial matters and change and grow up.

Church members who flit and hop from church to church at the first sign of trouble or because they aren't noticed or appreciated enough or because their "needs" aren't being met or because they had a falling out with someone do themselves as well as the next congregation to which they link up a real disservice. There's no way we can advance in spiritual maturity if we're always on the run and not dealing with the internal heart issues and the external relational concerns that we find where we are now. And carrying our unfinished business and emotional garbage to the next church we join can hurt them. Local assemblies that push significant matters and conflicts under the rug without confronting them and handling them with loving truthfulness will usually be stymied and will often atrophy.

Certainly in churches where there is political manipulation, such as that cooked up by Jacob's mother, Rebekah, in Genesis 27 in order for him to get his father's blessing or where there are calculated attempts to get a group of people to conspire to achieve their own selfish ends, as we see with Joseph's brothers in chapter 37, anger, pain, hurt, and division will eventually surface. Deception and backroom manueverings seldom have positive conclusions in congregations. Little cliques and small groups of bitter folks who take church matters into their own hands usually make a mess of things.

We probably can best learn the right way to function in church life if we look at the example of the final of the great patriarchs, Joseph. He managed to straighten out years of multigenerational dysfunction and ultimately bring his family together in healing and reconciliation. And he didn't sacrifice truth to do it. Tears and the often difficult work of honest, loving confrontation pulled it off. See for yourself in chapters 42-50.

Maybe that old, old book of Genesis is the best manual we could ever find as we try to develop strong, healthy, thriving local fellowships in these challenging days!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Making Music

I had a delightful experience Monday afternoon and evening this week.

On my way home I stopped by First Baptist Church to take in some of the Virginia Baptist Senior Adult Festival of Praise being held there. Choirs of older saints from congregations around our state met to individually perform and to make up one big mass choir that would work on and present a short musical. I thoroughly enjoyed the 6 hours I gave over to this event.

The fellowship with some old friends and the making of some new acquaintances was marvelous. On hand was our own Rachel Pittman, who serves as Music secretary at FBC and who obviously worked hard in making many of the preparations for this gathering. Also there was Roger McGee, the very creative Minister of Music at my brother Don's church in Alexandria along with his "Jubilee Singers". Jana Wolfe, the lovely and gifted Music Minister from Mount Hermon Baptist in Danville, Don's former pastorate, was present with a contingent of her choir members. At dinner I sat with choristers from Liberty and Memorial churches locally, and across from Suzanne Buckingham and her pastor-husband. Suzanne used to come to my home church in Suffolk from Hampton to sing when her brilliant father, the late Dwight McSmith, would venture over to speak to our youth group or in that pulpit decades ago. It was a real privilege to meet David Schwoebel, the incredibly talented Minister of Music at Derbyshire Church in Richmond, who served as the piano accompanist for the large-group rehearsal times. He is known nationally as a composer of choral church music, and played my very favorite instrument with such delicacy and grace.

I suppose the highlight of the day was getting to see and hear Bob and Esther Burroughs again. I was first exposed to them over 30 years ago when I was a student at Samford University in Birmingham,AL and they were a part of the faculty, he in the School of Music and she as Director of Student Ministries. Even then he was recognized as one of the premier musicians, composers, and arrangers in Baptist life. She has gone on to become a leading speaker and writer and Christian communicator all across America. Bob, who has crafted songs sung by millions of us Baptists, was the guest clinician Monday. He was fun to listen to and watch. He directs with flair and exudes grace. He would alternately chide, playfully, that large choir, and gently teach musical techniques and mix it all up with the sharing of personal experiences from his long career. Esther was magnetic as she led out in the devotional times and spoke on themes appropriate to senior adults, such as grandparenting and mentoring and keeping laughter in your heart. She shared from the wellspring of a rich, full life. It was an honor for me to personally take the opportunity to thank them, separately, for what they have meant over the years to the Baptist family.

I went on home Monday night with my cup full. My soul was refreshed and inspired and invigorated. I guess somewhere down deep in my spirit that old dream of mine was rekindled yet again--that dream of getting to Heaven one day, instantly learning all there is to know about music, and becoming a concert pianist to the glory of God, traveling all over the universe presenting programs of praise. Or getting the chance to be a choral conductor who leads massive choirs all through the distant galaxies age after age in lifting musical adoration to the Lord. Or just being a simple, single part of that heavenly chorus whose membership is without number. Preachers probably won't have a job anymore over there...but musicians will! Eternally.

Thank you, good new friend Tom Ingram of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, for designing such a wonderful event. May it grow year after year. I wish more folks saw the value of taking a few days off each year to get with a couple hundred other Christians to just, as Bob Burroughs said, "make music."

Monday, March 9, 2009

Lighting Up The Room

Most churches could use a healthy dose of 1 John 1:7.

That's the verse that reminds us that God dwells and basks in light. He is completely truthful and pure, faithful and holy.

That's the text that dangles the possibility of enriching fellowship before us if we will just immerse ourselves in that same light. We will then enjoy closeness with the Lord and intimate connection with other believers.

Genuine fellowship is not simply backslapping, joketelling, handshaking, coffeedrinking get-togethers. It is a shared life. It is a deep bond. It is unity of spirit and purpose. It is bringing everything we are and have to the table along with others who do likewise. It is "fellows in the same ship" who delight together in the sea when the wind and waves are calm and work hard together in that ocean when the weather makes conditions adverse.

Real fellowship is hard to find in a lot of congregations.

Because of our busy, hectic lifestyles we often don't take the time to really get to know one another. Paradoxically, due to our relative affluence, we have the luxury of time to sit and criticize and pick at and gossip about each other, which only breeds suspicion and distrust and distancing. Fussing and fighting abound. Members flit and hop from one local assembly to another, usually trying to run from unsettled relational issues they are unwilling to attempt to solve, not realizing that in their immaturity they will more than likely encounter these same types of problems in the next church. Many congregations divide, fragment, and split. Evangelism and ministry suffer. The church's reputation in the community sours.

The Apostle John has the prescription for these ailing groups: turn on the light!

In a "well lighted" congregation hidden agendas will not survive. Political moves and crafty manipulation will be out of place. Prideful posturing will not stand. Secrets will not long endure, whether secret meetings, secret backstabbings, secret power grabs, or secret sins.

It's kinda like flipping on the light switch in a long abandoned old house. Suddenly mice and cockroaches scurry, and dust and dirt become clearly visible. Light just does that. It exposes. It shows what needs to be swept or painted or moved or fixed. In a church where believers are "walking in the light" truth and purity will take center stage. Members will feel more free to share their long undisclosed burdens, which will have the effect of reminding the whole assembly that we need to be patient with one another because we're all struggling with something. Believers will have a little greater openness to confessing their sins to godly accountability partners(James 5:16) which will result in an expanded congregational awareness that none of us is perfect or better than others or has any kind of reason to boast or brag or grasp for preeminence.

The bottomline is that we will become more and more known to each other. Honesty and transparency will replace deception and lying. We're all on equal footing at the cross of Christ. We're all sinners saved by grace. We need to lavish grace and mercy and understanding and forgiveness on one another. If the Holy Spirit is truly at work in a church, He will be pouring out love(Romans 5:5) and dispensing light, the 2 great foundation stones of spiritual fellowship. If the Holy Spirit is not at work in an assembly it is nothing more than another civic organization or country club. The church is supposed to be a living, Spirit-inspired organism, not just one more organization, however well-oiled and smoothly functioning.

Devious schemes and ugly actions cannot coexist with real fellowship. Questioning everyone's motives or slamming the ideas of others if we don't agree or verbally attacking brothers and sisters in Christ or stomping our feet and running away if we don't get what we want or living in longstanding dread that some past sin of ours is going to be revealed to the whispers and condemnation of other church members are patterns not indicative of Christlike behavior. Instead, they are fellowship destroyers. Trying to "get rid" of a pastor who, like all the rest of us, is flawed and imperfect or constantly feeling like we've got to give someone else a piece of our mind or elevating our preferences on non-essential matters to the level of convictions and then passing judgement on everyone who doesn't view it our way all contribute to the breakdown of warm, close ties between Christians.

Let's "light up the rooms" of our local assemblies! Then Matthew 5:16 will become a powerful reality and the unsaved around us will want what we have.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Teachable Moments

Educators and psychologists talk a lot about teachable moments.

Teachers and people helpers long for those small windows of opportunity when attentiveness and learning and receptivity can best take place because circumstances have conspired to create interest in insights that will satisfy a thirst for information and meet a need in the present on the part of pupils or counselees.

It's intriguing to think that even God crafts scenarios and designs settings where individuals are put into position to more readily desire, sense, and grasp divine revelation and truth. Most people go through life oblivious to the spiritual dimension or frantically trying to brush aside its stirrings. The Bible suggests that God uses certain situations and events and occasions to raise our alertness and awareness to what he is communicating.

For instance, in those times when we are sensitive to, and appreciative of, the wonders of nature around us, God is speaking to us of his existence. Of his power and creativity. Of his kindness in fashioning a world of beauty for us to enjoy. Psalm 19:1-6 and Romans 1:20 indicate that the Lord planned and shaped this massive, majestic universe as a way of introducing himself to people. When we gaze upward on a starry night or stand in awe at the brilliance of the sun we are being addressed by a lofty Creator who is transcendant to everything he has made and who holds us accountable for the knowledge that we are answerable to him because he formed us, too. Granted, admiring the moon or being enthralled with the depths of the oceans will not provide the facts we need in order to have a right relationship with God but the intricacies and marvels of creation do render us without any excuse when it comes to knowing about him. That walk in the woods or that scuba diving excursion is a platform from which God can speak. If we pursue what we perceive, he'll see to it that we get additional insight.

Maybe you haven't thought about it but birthdays also provide a stage for the sovereign Lord to get your attention. That annual event has a way of reminding us that time is passing, and quickly, too. None of us knows how much we have left. Makes sense, then, that we'd pause to reflect on how best to use the years and months and days that remain. Psalm 90:12 is a prayer that reminds us that our lives are on loan from God and are a stewardship for him. We need to find out from him what directions to take and choices to make. According to Romans 14:7-12 our lives really don't belong to us anyway and we will ultimately have to give an account to our Maker. Birthdays should be days of gratitude to our benevolent God for the incredible privilege of being alive and immersed in a world of such delights and sensations and pleasures and opportunities. But our yearly special day should also be a sobering occasion of pondering the brevity of life.

That's why funerals are such significant teachable moments, too.

The writer of Ecclesiastes 7:2 offers the bold but perceptive insight that it is actually better to visit the mortuary than to go to a party. It often makes more sense to attend a wake than to accept an invitation to a banquet. The reason is because funeral homes and graveside services confront us head on with the reality that death awaits us all. We can conveniently put all of that out of our conscious awareness at a lavish dinner or dance but not when we are in the presence of the deceased and of grieving mourners. The caskets and the tears jolt us, if just for alittle while, with the sure realization that we, too, have an eventual appointment with death and need to be prepared not just in terms of wills and funeral arrangements but in regards to our spiritual lives which survive that last breath.

People can be so busy or preoocupied or independant that God has to use special tools to carve out a place where they are temporarily put in listening mode and become sensitive to his speaking.

For some, a season of sickness, as unpleasant as that may be, turns out to be a life transforming experience of really hearing from the Lord and getting priorities rearranged. Psalm 119:71 is actually a prayer of thanks, if you can believe it, for some period of illness in the poet's life that intensified his spiritual appetite and made him a stronger person. There's just something about being confined or in pain or flat on our back that gets us paying attention to what's most important and moves us toward a reevaluation of our life goals. The Apostle Paul relates in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 that a "thorn in the flesh", probably some physical ailment, may have done more to actually shape his Christian character than a lot of his busy ministry activity because it forced him to deal with some heart issues that needed resolution. The Old Testament figure Job suffered unbelievably but his pain was a factor in leading him to a vastly expanded view of the nature of God.

And it can't be ruled out that God may use the current economic mess to get us to sit up and take notice of his voice which we may have ignored when things were better. The massive layoffs, the business closings, the home foreclosures, and the wiping out of investments all hurt, and painfully so. It's certainly possible, though, that a very, very good God might be whispering to us in all this that we had gotten greedy. That we had put possessions over relationships. That a high percentage of our world neighbors live in deprivation, lack, and loss that we can't imagine all the time and we need to notice them. That maybe we ought to channel more of the resources we do have into charitable and mission causes. It would seem that I Timothy 6:17 and Hebrews 12:26-29 have something to say on all this. Clearly all of us ought to be training ourselves to live with less and to be content with what we have. Surely now is the time for Christians to camp out in Matthew 6:19-34.

Even in the quietness and peacefulness of the night God may be seeking to communicate with us. Psalm 119:148 flows out of the heart of a writer who made space in his soul as he rested through the dark hours for the Lord to counsel or confront or challenge or comfort him. TV off. Traffic noise subdued. Just stillness and calm and perhaps a stream of impressions from a loving God who simply delights in us. Check Psalm 63:6. Instead of taking all our troubles to bed with us, we can settle into relaxing sleep by offering up our cares to a compassionate, protective God.

Had any teachable moments lately?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Associational Decisions

It's interesting to me that some scriptures in the New Testament offer some insight into the issues we're dealing with right now in our association.

We're trying to find our way into the future before us. We're facing a changing culture, a different kind of congregational climate, a bad economy, and a rapidly proliferating technological society. A very real effort is being made in PBA life these days to determine what our priorities should be and what type of focus we should have. Eddie Heath, our vision consultant, is capably assisting us in crafting a plan that will propel us toward effectively carrying out a well-defined mission in the years just ahead. A leaner, sharper, more targeted network is called for in these challenging days. Though our Gospel message doesn't change, our methods and approaches must.

It appears that a consensus is slowly emerging that our model for ministry must be altered. Enthusiasm seems to be growing for moving from a structure that develops programs and outreaches and projects and asks for the churches to help to a new paradigm where the association will exist to assist the congregations in their work of touching, reaching, winning, and discipling their particular communities and settings. This would be quite a shift but it was actually approved as the visional design for our collection of churches during the last transition period and was just never really implemented.

Under this strategy, our PBA staff would consult with and help equip and enable our local fellowships to be the very best they could be. They would provide personnel and resources to come alongside our churches with instruction, counsel, and fresh ideas about congregational health, conflict resolution, evangelism, church growth, and ministry initiatives. Imagine a Troy Durio helping an inner city church more finely hone its skills in impacting its neighborhood or assisting one of our congregations on this resort oriented Peninsula develop action plans to more creatively utilize beaches and theme parks for Christian witness. Picture a Mike Vaccarelli not just keeping up the PBA web page or preparing our newsletter but going in and guiding our churches in setting up helpful technology systems that will better position them to successfully make a difference in our high tech environment. Think about a seasoned servant like Mike Haywood establishing mentoring relationships with young and potential leaders in our congregations or equipping our churches in how to develop strong youth and family ministries that will enable them to have a greater influence in their communities.

Surely there would still be opportunities and occasions for shared ministries and wide-scale endeavors in our wonderful and longstanding voluntary patnership. The basic thrust, though, would shift to a more church-centered approach.

It seems to me that Acts 11:19-26 illustrates this beautifully. When the church at Antioch formed in an explosion of evangelistic activity, the "mother church" in Jerusalem sent Barnabas there to offer some help. He, in turn, went and secured the services of Saul(Paul) and the two of them taught, consulted, and strengthened that new local fellowship for a whole year. Eventually the Antioch congregation became a hotbed of spiritual vitality and a strong missionary-sending church itself. The life and ministries of most of our PBA churches could be enhanced and lifted to new levels if we were open to dynamic new methods and approaches as presented to us by able consultants whose work it is to find out what the trends are and how best to respond.

Then there is strong precedent in the New Testament for churches cooperating together in large tasks that isolated assemblies could never accomplish alone. Paul's attempt to raise a large relief collection for the famine-stricken believers back in Jerusalem(Acts 11:28; I Corinthians 16:1-4) is one example. Maybe the popular and very successful sports and work camps and disaster relief done in PBA would be something of a contemporary demonstration of that idea of occasionally joining together in big initiatives.

Please pray for your interim leadership team and for the ad hoc groups that are now wrestling with how to put all of this together into meaningful recommendations to the entire association sometime this Spring. Just as the Jerusalem Council met centuries ago(Acts 15) to deal with a major doctrinal issue, so now we grapple with these practical and organizational matters, hoping to get to that point where we can say, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..." to move into exciting, exhilirating new missional directions.