Praise and Presidential Politics

 “Why is praise so prevalent in Scripture? When praising God, our minds move away from ourselves. We quit thinking about how bad off we are. We drop our ‘poor little me-isms’ and God turns us to focus on His goodness and sovereignty” (Calvin Miller, The Power of Encouragement).
   You’ve heard it said time and again how much we have been blessed. It’s important to keep reinforcing this principle of gratitude in our church; we have the privilege of going through life together with others in our community of faith.
    It’s easy to become cynical these days. During these last few weeks, major political parties have held their conventions. There’s no shortage of vitriol and animosity toward others who hold different political or social positions. This will only intensify as our nation moves toward November and the election of our next president.
    I’ve made the mistake of reading some of the posts from my “Facebook friends.” It’s discouraging to see statements that very few would make in person to someone else. Social media can devolve into a cesspool of hatred toward candidates, those who support them, and those who disagree with them. Television political advertisements can bring out the worst with the hope of a win.
    Regardless of who is elected our next president, it’s important to remember that God is still God. Let’s not go crazy or lash out with extreme views on Facebook or other social media. We can be passionate, but when things are getting too heated, may we “be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46.10 NIV).
    One of the core values of UHBC is “the separation of church and state.” We believe in a free church in a free state. We agree to disagree without breaking fellowship with each other. Faith will necessarily intersect with politics, but we don’t all agree on how that is to happen or what that should look like. We are a tapestry of different political, social, and theological positions.
    No church is perfect. But, I am so grateful for the spirit and personality of UHBC as we navigate through this political season. As we do so, may we affirm our unity around the only and earliest creed that Baptists should affirm: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Let us put the Kingdom of God first and foremost, even as we may struggle with differences of opinion that are important to us.
   Consider the words of Susan B. Anthony: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
   I hope you’ll join me in “keeping the main thing the main thing” through the remainder of 2016. Good things are happening in our church. I’m looking forward to kicking off the Fall, meeting new people, and serving our risen Lord. Let’s praise God for that and be open to the Holy Spirit’s leadership as we move forward, together.

Pastor’s page: cynicism and C.S. Lewis

We are living in a time of great cynicism. This was even more apparent with the joint appearance of Presidents Bush and Obama at a memorial service. They came together to show support for the five police officers who were gunned down by a sniper and their families.

I’m not naive to the politics and optics. But, it was disheartening to read criticisms instead of affirmations that they came together to show support for the city of Dallas and these families. I’m not sure if this attitude has always been prevalent, or whether social media has brought it more to light.

Discouragement affects us all. In “A Grief Observed,” C.S. Lewis talked about his struggle with heartache as he grieved the death of his wife:

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy you have no sense of needing him, if you turn to him then with praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. 

But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away.”

The story of Lewis is fascinating and offers many lessons for us. I would encourage you to locate some of his writings or a biography and read them.

We’re continuing our journey through the Psalms this month. I’ll be dealing with a personal and poignant passage dealing with questioning where God is during our most difficult times.

The summer months offer a time for a change of pace and routine. It’s been good to hear from many of you who are away visiting family or simply taking a much needed break. Even though some of us have been away, it’s been encouraging to see guests in our worship services.

I thought you’d like to know that our Payday Loan Relief Program is making an impact not only in Springfield, but around the country. UHBC is receiving notoriety for our creative partnership with the nearby credit union. Just this past week, I received an email from Nashville, TN. This person had heard of our efforts and wanted to know how to begin such a work in their city. We continue to receive local media coverage as well.

The Lord is at work in our church. We are making a difference for Christ in our community. We continue to see guests each week. And, I’m grateful for your willingness to try new things in order to remain effective for the cause of Christ. Your hospitality and prayers are making a difference.

I am grateful we can seek the Kingdom of God, together. See you Sunday.

Another death in Paradise

It’s been a horrific few days in this country. In this era of instant news and communication, we feel connected more than ever and this, I believe, is a good thing.

Events like those in Louisiana and Minnesota seem to be happening with greater regularity. Two more police shootings and how the situations unfolded were captured on cellphones and broadcast on Facebook. Who would ever have imagined this kind of live broadcast?

In response, a protest took place on the streets of Dallas. We have seen these kinds of marches before, another example of our freedom of speech. More importantly, these calls to action have become an avenue to express frustration, fear, and appeals for change. This peaceful protest was interrupted by gunfire and the deaths of five police officers in Dallas. The shooter has been identified as a veteran who served in Afghanistan, and whose motivation involved killing white police officers.

David Brown, Dallas Police Chief, held a press conference to talk about the horrible details of how five of his fellow police officers where killed. He eloquently summarized the sentiment that many people have right now: “All I know is that this must stop. This divisiveness. . . between our police and our citizens.”

As disturbing as this violence is (and continue to be), I find some of the responses to these moments distressing as well. I don’t expect everyone to have the same reactions, but I would hope that we could have a little more compassion and understanding. My friend Stephen Reeves, Associate Coordinator of Partnerships and Advocacy for the CBF, put it this way on his Facebook page: Dear Lord, for our white brothers and sisters in Christ who methodically analyze every angle of a particular incident in order to justify a killing, but can’t be bothered to give a second thought to an unjust system, we pray. 

I’ve become more interested in how these incidents affect the youngest among us. They are the ones who are going to inherit a nation with all its problems, challenges, and hopefully opportunities. Among these challenges will be how we bridge the racial divide. It also relates to the rise of gun violence in this nation. I admire their courage and activism in engaging our communities and calling for more dialogue and action.

My daughter Cally just graduated high school. It has been enlightening to observe how these gun related deaths are impacting her. She posted these thoughts on her Facebook page: We must not turn against each other. Now more than ever we need to love each other and respect each other. All the hateful words I’m seeing on Facebook and Twitter about the BLM movement really troubles me. We have a serious racial problem in this country and we need to work together to fix it. I’m devastated by what happened tonight in Dallas. Its going to be hard to sleep tonight thinking about everything that is going on. All this senseless killing needs to stop.

There will more calls for “thoughts and prayers” to be given to these families, and rightfully so. Grief needs to be observed. We need to call for calm and come together as families and communities. But, we also ought not be dismissive about the causes of this violence nor succumb to hopelessness that nothing will improve or change in this country.

Erin Grinshteyn is Assistant Professor at the School of Community Health Science at the University of Nevado at Reno. She offered these findings in a recent article by CBS News: “Overall, our results show that the U.S., which has the most firearms per capita in the world, suffers disproportionately from firearms compared with other high-income countries. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that our firearms are killing us rather than protecting us.”

I’m concerned about our nation and especially those in the millennial generation who are watching these events unfold before their eyes. It may be this generation of students and young leaders who compel us to do something to improve the way we relate to each other and how we view one another. We need to hear their voices.

I hope I’m wrong though. We can’t afford to wait any longer to come together. In the meantime, I call upon our churches to show our concern and commitment by living out the teachings us Jesus. We need to share life together in authentic community and do the hard work of demonstrating there is a better way. Let’s not let the moment pass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thankful for freedoms this 4th of July

   “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
    Abraham Lincoln offered these words many years ago, and supported them with actions that saved our republic. The path was not easy for him, as he suffered many losses and struggled with depression. As we celebrate this 4th of July weekend, let it be with a sincere debt of gratitude for his leadership.
    I want to let you all know how much I appreciated the two months of sabbatical. It meant a great deal to step away from work and routine to spend time for resting, reading, and reflection. I’m especially thankful for all of you who led mid-week Bible Study and Sunday morning worship services. I am grateful also for our church staff as they continued the work that is so important to our congregation and community.
     I’m looking forward to seeing many of you this upcoming Sunday. I’m beginning a four part sermon series from the Psalms, and hope we’ll enjoy spending some time in this special book. It’s a holiday weekend, so we may have some of our church family away. But, if you are able, it would be good to see you again this Sunday morning.
    One of the most precious freedoms we have in this country is the freedom to worship. J. Brent Walker, retiring Director of the Baptist Joint Committee, put it this way: “The point cannot be over-emphasized: we must not exercise our freedom selfishly, but in a way that serves God, respects the well-being of others, honors the government and promotes the common good.”
   May God help us to be grateful for our freedoms, and remember those whose perseverance and sacrifice made them possible.

A few thoughts on the Orlando shooting

Orlando is now known for more than Disney World. It has become reluctant host to the largest mass shooting in the history of the United States. This is a dubious distinction for the home of the “happiest place on earth.”

I have been watching the news video of the shooting and reading related news stories. I’ve been looking at Twitter and following some of the Facebook traffic. I never cease to be amazed at how quickly postings can become personal and deteriorate into attacks and questioning of one’s religious beliefs. Then again, it is social media.

We fall into the same cycle of behavior every time this happens. Shock. Anger. Grief. Blame. A Call to Action. Inaction. Calls for “prayers and support for the victims and their families.” This is appropriate and seemingly the best many of us can come up with under the circumstances. Yet, I still find this lacking.

I’m sure this situation will be politicized. I’ve already noticed the presidential candidates weighing in on the shootings. Not too long ago there was a press conference involving the owner of the gun store where the shooter purchased his weapon. The proper background checks were observed, yet the results are painfully obvious to us all.

In this instance, the victims were those in the LGBT community. Last year around this time we were shocked by killings in an African-American church. This type of behavior has become too frequent. Yes, the Orlando shooting was an evil action and the one who carried out this horrific act was filled with hate. He was inspired by ISIS, yet no direct connection can be made to this terrorist group. However, I’m sure they will take credit for his action. The term being used now is that he was “radicalized.” Sadder still is that this was example of “home grown” terrorism.

America seems to have a corner on this kind of mass shootings. I don’t hear too much about this happening in other countries, at least not with the frequency we’ve come to expect. There ought be a way to enact common sense gun control in this country while honoring the second amendment. In my opinion, there are certain types of military style weapons that have no business being accessible to the general public. It will take courageous politicians and government leaders to bring about the changes necessary to bring down the number of mass shootings in this country.

I’m becoming disillusioned that any real change will come because of this situation. I recall the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Innocent children were made victims. Families grieved the loss then as they do now. If nothing moved us to make significant changes then, it is unlikely to see anything happen now.

There are several examples of gun control legislation brought about in other countries. Change was brought about when the people had had enough with the violence. Perhaps we can keep the discussion on this issue going in this country long enough to see something happen. Yes, it does seem unlikely, but it is possible.

John Howard, former Prime Minister of Australia, offered this rationale for implementing change in his country after they endured a mass shooting:  “Australia is a safer country as a result of what was done in 1996. It will be the continuing responsibility of current and future federal and state governments to ensure the effectiveness of those anti-gun laws is never weakened. The U.S. is a country for which I have much affection. There are many American traits which we Australians could well emulate to our great benefit. But when it comes to guns we have been right to take a radically different path.”

As a pastor, I’m always interested in how the church will respond to people in crisis and pain. I hope the hatred directed at the LGBT community in the killing of 50 people will bring about a thoughtful response from Christians. This is a moment for us to come together in a spirit of cooperation and kindness. Let us join together in living out the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace; 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

May our thoughts and prayers truly be with the victims and their families. Let us find that common ground where the common good can be realized. And, may we leave room for the love of Christ to do its transforming work to change hearts and minds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Predatory loan meeting in KCMO

debttrap.1

There are more payday/title loan companies in Missouri than Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Wal-Marts. . . combined.

Think about that.

It’s hard to imagine being charged 450% on a 30 day loan for $650, but I saw one of these loan applications for myself. I cannot imagine what it is like for persons who have a financial crisis (which can be something that costs less than $1000), take out a payday loan, and then have to take out additional loans EVERY month to pay for it. It is not uncommon for persons to borrow a few hundred dollars, yet pay thousands of dollars in interest and fees.

It’s not right, and it’s time to do something about it.

This Thursday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is having a field hearing at the Kansas City Convention Center. This meeting will feature remarks from CFPB Director Richard Cordray as well as testimonies from  consumer groups, industry representatives, and members of the public. I’m hopeful that we will hear new guidelines and parameters which will reform the payday/title loan industry.

There is a lot of information available on this issue; go to the Stop the Debt Trap website and read more about the impact of payday loans and how they exploit those who can least afford it.

I did an interview recently where I was asked about the political nature of this issue, and how churches might be reluctant to get involved for that reason. In my view, payday and title loan reform is not a political issue, but a justice issue. It is about fairness. There is nothing about charging 450% interest (and higher!) on a loan that is fair or just. We can do better as a community than this.

There are many causes and reasons for poverty. Springfield has a high poverty rate, despite the fact that rate of unemployment is relatively low. One facet of systematic poverty is the presence of these high interest loan companies. It is not a coincidence that payday and title loan companies saturate low-income areas of cities. These high interest, short term loans seem to be a fix for an immediate need. But, they turn out to be financial bait to trap people in a cycle of debt.

I am certain there will be significant opposition to any changes or controls to payday loan companies. I’m sure there will be a segment who feels they are providing a service to the community. This industry can continue providing resources to persons who might not be able to get loans from banks or credit unions, but they shouldn’t be able to put people into financial slavery over loans of less than a thousand dollars.

There are many issues that tend to divide the faith community. It’s unfortunate that we have difficulty working together because we don’t all agree on theology or doctrine. But, surely we can come together and agree that exploiting the poor is something that is not consistent with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. He came to “bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:16-21).

I’m ready for some good news on this issue. Payday loan reform is not only an economic issue but also a spiritual one. It has been encouraging to see more faith leaders and communities getting informed and involved. We’ve been asking for change for a long time. Let’s hope we’ll see some of this happen on Thursday. It could be an historic day for Missouri.

 

 

 

UHBC ordains men AND women

      Daniel Vestal has written about “Why I am a Baptist” and recently commented on life and ministry in the church. He said, “In a Baptist vision of church, men and women are equal. Because of Christ there is no male or female, just as there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free. Participation and leadership in the church are not determined by gender, social status, or economic condition; these are determined by the grace and call of God.”
      Sometimes things can become so routine and familiar to us that we lose appreciation for them. We can, on occasion, take people, circumstances, and blessings for granted. Being part of a church that supports men and women in leadership should never be something that falls into that category. It’s imperative that we celebrate our church’s heritage and character as one who bases service on gifts and calling, not gender.
      The Apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NIV). This text is the hermeneutical key for understanding the context in which the apostle lived and wrote his letters to the churches.
      In his own life and ministry, Jesus Christ included women as his followers. He did not rebuke Mary when she opted to sit at his feet to listen and learn rather than help her sister Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Women were also the first witnesses to and heralds of the resurrection (Luke 24:1-10). And the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost confirmed the prophet Joel’s prediction that “your sons and your daughters will prophecy” (Acts 2:17-18).  Phillip also had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9).
      There are other examples but you get the idea. Despite the cultural limitations, women played an important role in the life of the church. Now, in the 21st century, the equality of service and ministry should be even more apparent in the local church.
      UHBC is the only Baptist church in this area of the country that affirms and maintains that God can call anyone to serve in any capacity in the life of the church. For many years, UHBC has benefited from the involvement and leadership of women and men on boards, committees, and ministerial staff. It’s hard to imagine doing this another way.
      It is especially meaningful to me as a father of two daughters for them to see shared ministry modeled in our church. I hope that as they grow up and older that the lessons of service that they have seen and heard will stay with them. Let’s always remember the influence and impact we are having with the next generation of leaders.
      This Sunday, we will apply our Baptist principles and heritage in a deacon ordination service for Grace Clifton and Zach Fowler. As Baptists, we can ordain those whom the Lord calls out and that our congregation chooses. We don’t need approval from any outside authority or denominational body. As the local body of Christ, we affirm and acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is working the their lives and are grateful for their willingness to serve the Lord in this way.
      Many of you have known and loved Grace and her family for a long time, and I am so grateful for her leadership, friendship and servant heart. She is a wonderful presence at Glendale High School and has a heart for students and people in general. Grace will be a great addition to our deacons.
      It’s also been a pleasure to have had Zach in our church for the last few years. He has been involved in our student ministry, been visible on the platform on Sunday mornings, and shows a willingness to do whatever in the service of God and our church. Zach recently graduated with a Masters degree from SBU. In a relatively short period of time, he has become an integral part of our church family.
      This Sunday morning, we will celebrate both of them. One has been part of UHBC for years, and the other is relatively new to us. Both are loved and appreciated, and are examples of how the Lord adds people to the church to fulfill its purpose. I am thankful that God has blessed my life by bringing them into our church family. Each one is “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Let’s give thanks for that they are serving the Lord with us.