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The Good Neighbor Test

Being a good neighbor is becoming more difficult, but has never been more important.

These last few weeks have been unbelievable. We have all been watching the horrific images coming out of France relating to the events of a week ago. Now I am seeing images of a Mali hotel in which at least 21 people were killed by attackers.

It seems like every time I turn on the television there is “breaking news” and it usually not very good. All of these images are elevating the already high anxiety of our world, and closer to home, those of us in the United States.

Living here in the Show Me State, I am sensitive to what has been happening at Mizzou. A university president and chancellor resigned over the demands of an on campus student organization and one student went on a hunger strike. I’ve also read about students here in Springfield at Missouri State who have their own list of “demands.” They are claiming racial discrimination and insist upon a more inclusive environment.

If that wasn’t intriguing enough, I am hearing presidential candidates weigh in on the Syrian refugee crisis. Many of them oppose offering any assistance, with the exception of one Republican candidate who says we should help “Christian refugees.” When asked how can you distinguish the Christian refugees, he replied, “I think you can prove it.”

Perhaps most troubling to me personally has been the ongoing rhetoric of former Southern Baptist minister and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. In responding to a question of receiving Syrian refugees, he responded, “It’s time for us to wake up and smell the Falafel.”

There has never been a more important time to respond to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan has radical implications for us who claim to follow him and his teachings. Those who are familiar with this story realize that Jesus allowed a Samaritan to become the hero of the story. It involved helping a stranger who had been beaten and left on the roadside to die. Two religious leaders came by that scene and passed “on the other side of the road” to avoid seeing the need. I can only imagine the shock and angst among those Jewish listeners when revealed the Samaritan as one who acted with compassion.

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus didn’t provide an answer, but brilliantly led the initial questioner, a religious leader, to offer an answer to his own question: “The one who had mercy on him.” He couldn’t bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” And Jesus responded, “Go thou and do likewise” (Luke 10).

I get the fact that we need to enforce our laws and ensure our security as a nation.  I am a father with three children and am concerned about the world they are going to live in. I am also concerned about how the church as a whole is going to respond to these challenges and dangers. In short, I believe that a culture of fear is infiltrating the body of Christ and making it difficult to distinguish the behaviors of the world and the church. It’s ironic that such hateful words and actions are coming from those who would also argue vehemently that this nation is “Christian.”

The church needs to find its voice during these turbulent times. We ought not jettison biblical teachings when faced with the politics of the moment. The words of Jesus continue to challenge us:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me. (Matthew 25:37-41)

I sympathize with the presidential candidate who thought the Syrian refugees should be able to “prove” they are Christians. My concern is whether we can do that as well.







Payday Loans and the need for Just Lending

It’s a start. I was pleased to hear that the Springfield City Council has agreed to place the Payday Loans issue on their legislative agenda for the upcoming year.

There is agreement among faith leaders in our community that payday loans exploit at risk families who are at or below the poverty level. It is encouraging to me that this kind of support has been found among Baptists as well. I never thought I would see the day when the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship could agree on an issue and work together.

I recently attended a gathering of Faith Voices of Southwest Missouri, an organization that desires to bring human dignity to the center of public life. Our lunch meeting focused on the question “What Can Springfield Do About Predatory Lending in our City?” We listened to a cross section of political and religious leaders, a panel discussion, and also the personal stories of two individuals whose lives have been affected by payday loans. One woman in particular lamented the need for a payday loan of $200 in order to travel to St. Louis for a medical procedure. She is unable to repay this amount because she can’t even keep up with the interest rate. It has created an embarrassing and shameful predicament for her and her family.

These kinds of stories need to be heard. It is not easy to talk about one’s personal and financial troubles in front of a crowd. But, the willingness to share the stress and anxiety created by payday loans is vital to moving faith groups and politicians to act.

I wasn’t tuned in to the ongoing damage that payday loan companies caused until I started listening to the stories. The number of families impacted is staggering. More than 20,000 payday and car title loan stores operate in our country. Many of these lenders can offer loans at 300% APR and higher because they are not regulated in the same manner as banks and credit unions.

The most remarkable discovery I made relates to the intent of payday loan companies. Their loans are predatory in nature and are extended to those who are most vulnerable and unable to pay. Payday loan companies provide money not on the borrower’s ability to pay, but rather on the loan company’s ability to collect. These companies charge astronomical rates of interest for their loans, often keeping borrowers in a perpetual cycle of crushing debt.

Our church has begun a process of education and information about payday loans. Part of this process has been working with Faith Voices of Southwest Missouri to discern what is happening on a personal and community level to those who are being affected by this practice. We are looking into ways to offer solutions in partnership with lending agencies like credit unions. It is important to offer personal, spiritual, and financial assistance to persons who need to escape the trap of payday loans. I am hopeful that with the council’s support and involvement, our community can respond in a productive manner.

In thinking of our own church’s efforts, I began to realize that more churches like ours could get involved in this important social issue. Many people are suffering under the weight of predatory loans. I have been hopeful that more pastors and congregations could come together and agree that something should be done about this immoral practice. It is easy enough to find controversial issues which can divide us as a faith community. It is time to unite and find common ground in helping those who are the most in need.

There are numerous examples in the Bible about treating the poor with respect. There are admonitions to help those who are weak and helpless, and to fight for justice for the oppressed. I’m hopeful that we are seeing this take place on this issue, but there is much work to be done.

My challenge for fellow pastors is to get educated on payday loans. Find out who is most affected by the debt trap that is set by payday loan companies. Join me in looking for ways to change existing laws to require regulation so that reasonable interest rates are charged. This should based on an ability to repay within the original loan period, mindful of the borrower’s income and expenses.

On a positive note, I was encouraged to learn that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is preparing to issue new rules regarding payday lending practices in the upcoming year. Let’s work together to make these regulations as strong as possible so that these immoral business practices will no longer take advantage of the poor and least among us.

Neville Callam comes to UHBC

callam.1On Sunday, November 1st, our church celebrates its annual Baptist Heritage Day. UHBC appreciates its unique position as “free and faithful Baptists” situated here in the Ozarks. We are the only American Baptist and/or Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation in southwest Missouri. We also maintain a partnership with Greene County Baptist Association, the local grouping of Southern Baptist Churches.

Each year, we invite one of our Baptist leaders to help us acknowledge this important time in our church’s life. This year we are grateful to have Dr. Neville Callam with us. He is the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). Callam has served in a variety of ways in church life, including pastor, administrator, educator and media manager, theologian, and ecumenist. He was ordained to the Christian ministry by the Jamaica Baptist Union in 1977, and has taught in the United Theological College of the West Indies and the Jamaica Theological Seminary. Callam also served for 13 years as a member of the Standing Commision on Faith and Order in the World Council of Churches.

Callam has authored or edited seven books, the most recent being “Pursuing Unity and Defending Rights: The Baptist World Alliance at Work.” He has made presentations at symposia, seminars, worships and services of worship in more than 70 countries.

He and his wife Dulcie Allison have been married for more than 30 years, and are proud parents of two adult children, Deidre and Gairy. The Callams are also happy grandparents of two girls, Krista and Kari.

While having lunch with a preacher friend of mine, I was reminded of the diversity and differences among Baptist churches and entities. I’m fortunate to be friends with several Southern Baptist ministers in this area (I am not certain they would admit that in their circles, however). We can enjoy being together without having to agree on all aspects of polity and theology. Baptists have done of good job of being a schismatic people on a variety of issues. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention defunded the Baptist World Alliance years ago. Still, it remains a vibrant and active organization which includes many races, cultures, and diverse locations. It is truly a global community of Baptists.

For this reason and others, our church is grateful to maintain our support of the BWA. We’re excited about having Neville with us, and are looking forward to that time of renewal and reminder of our commonality as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ with those in different places around the world.

The Circle Maker Comes to UHBC

pastorappreciation.1Our church is beginning the 40 day prayer challenge “Draw the Circle” by Mark Batterson. We start on Sunday, October 4th and I have done what I can to encourage our people to secure the book and participate.

This season of prayer comes at an opportune time for me. Several months ago, I was making preparations to go on sabbatical and would have been gone this Fall. The church, in its wisdom, included a sabbatical provision for its senior pastor in the personnel manual. I am actually two years beyond the time to go, so I’m overdue. And, I’m feeling it, too. I’ve been serving as a pastor for more than 20 years now, and here at UHBC for over eight of those. I’m grateful to have people encouraging me to do this, but it’s been hard to disconnect with all the challenges we’ve been going through. My hope is to move on this in the Spring, around the time that Cally graduates high school.

It’s also an appropriate time for the church. We’ve been experiencing a numerical decline for several decades, yet this reality is becoming more acute with the aging out of so many people. I’ve performed well over 100 funerals since I’ve been here, and see about half that many more get to a point where they can’t get out any more. I’ve observed a bit of grieving process taking place, as our members look at pews and places where their friends once were. Now, they have been ushered into the presence of the Lord to receive their reward.

This transitional phase is being felt by congregations and denominations all across our country. Bill Wilson alluded to this reality is his recent article entitled “The Beginning of the End for Baptist Entities?” It’s noteworthy that he put a question mark on the end of that statement, but it could very well have been a period or exclamation point. Wilson adds that thousands of churches close their doors each year.

Traditional churches like UHBC go through transitions too. It’s tough to bury so many devoted members. I’m reminded of the George Jones song, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” whenever I have another death to prepare for. On the other hand, churches are receiving younger, newer members who don’t know the traditions and sacred cows of the church. It’s refreshing to hear the questions about why things are done a certain way. I can also appreciate the nervousness of remaining older members who wonder out loud “how can we get more young people?”

Jared Wilson has helped me with this question quite a bit. In his book, “The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo,” he warns his readers that “if we treat people like consumers, they will act like them.” In other words, we can’t simply try to find out what will get people in the doors of the building, because what attracts them now might bore them later on. The latest and greatest events may bring people in temporarily, but they don’t provide lasting value. Wilson contends that getting more people in the building isn’t necessarily building up the church itself.

For me, I want to use the 40 days to “draw a circle” around who it is that God wants me to be as a person, husband, father, and pastor. I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea that God might have something entirely different in mind when it comes to his church.

I’m preaching from Acts 10 this Sunday, using the story of Cornelius. This is one of the most important passages in the New Testament, signifying that Gentiles were included in God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. Cornelius had three character traits that I want our people to model: he prayed regularly, he cared about his community, and he was open to the leadership of the Lord. God orchestrated a “divine appointment” between him and Peter which transcended geographical, racial, and religious barriers. I’m hoping for barrier breaking to take place here as well.

It also has occurred to me that October is pastor and staff appreciation month. It’s a great privilege to lead a church, and also can be a great burden. I keep reminding myself that this church belongs to the Lord, and my prayer is that these 40 days will reinforce my need for Him and our church’s desire to seek His direction.

Even if you’re not part of our church family, I invite you to pray with us. I’m expecting great things and asking the Lord to center us as a people into seeking the Kingdom of God rather than our own Kingdom.

Josh Duggar, Jared Fogle and The Valley of Trouble

I love a good upset. Many of us still remember the voice of Al Michaels broadcasting the US victory over USSR in the 1980 Olympics which was called “the Miracle on Ice.” Joe Namath predicted that his Jets would defeat the Colts in Super Bowl III, and they did 16-7. One of my personal favorites occurred a few years ago, as my alma mater University of Louisiana-Monroe beat the University of Arkansas in football. It was called “the shock in Little Rock.” They made T-Shirts to commemorate the occasion.

These kinds of victories are unlikely and are thrilling when they occur. But, not so much for the losing team.

The people of Israel were coming off a tremendous victory at Jericho. They processed around the walls, blowing trumpets and shouting. The Lord assured them victory but gave them one stipulation: don’t take the devoted things from the Lord. If they did, “you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it” (Joshua 6.19).

A man named Achan did not listen to this prohibition but instead took some things without the knowledge of the others. His actions caused great collateral damage when the people of Israel took on Ai, a seemingly easy opponent. Even the spies for Joshua told him that it was going to be an easy win, so don’t send the whole army. When the battle was over, Ai had killed 36 men and caused anxiety in the camp: “At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water” (Joshua 7.5).

Joshua initially blamed God for the defeat, but soon realized that there was “sin in the camp” thanks to Achan. Achan’s sin was discovered and he and all he owned were taken to the Valley of Achor, meaning “trouble.” In a Hebrew play on words, “achor” was coming upon “Achan.” He had to face terrible consequences and a bitter twist of irony. The sin he had covered up would now cover him up.

The question Joshua asked him in the Valley is a pointed one: “Why have you brought this trouble on us?” (7.25)

This past week we have witnessed some terrible, surprising news. Jared Fogle had a wonderful success story. He lost over 400 pounds at the University of Indiana following the “Subway diet.” He was hired by the sandwich company to be their spokesperson and had an ad campaign built around his success. Fogle started a foundation to help obese children and served an inspiration as a seemingly ordinary person who had “made it” in terms of weight loss. However, he was hiding a terrible secret. Since 2007, he had been using the internet and social networking sites to arrange meetings with underage girls for sexual activity. It’s been a shocking and disappointing discovery, with Subway simply tweeting: “Jared Fogle’s actions are inexcusable and do not represent our brand’s values. We have already ended our relationship with Jared.”

Then, there’s reality TV star Josh Duggar. Earlier this year, he was forced to apologize after reports emerged alleging improper contact with girls which included his sisters. Many prominent Christian leaders came to his defense, citing he was the victim of anti-Christian bias.

Now he is apologizing after being outed as one of 32 million people who used the cheating website Ashley Madison. Duggar said, “I have been the biggest hypocrite ever. While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the internet and I became unfaithful to my wife.”

Both Fogle’s and Duggar’s actions are inexcusable and harmful to many, many people. The surprising nature of these disgusting actions have impacted not only their own future but also those who believed in them. Sadly, this isn’t the first time things like this have happened and it won’t be the last.

It’s easy to condemn actions like this. They should be condemned. But, for those of us in the Christian community, they should give us reason to pause and think about areas of our own lives that are not as they should. It is easy to focus on sins that we don’t have trouble with but more difficult to face those that are present in our own lives.

We are all sinners. The Bible makes that clear. What has frequently given me heartburn is the number of us Christians who take an exalted stance in our morality while hiding secret sins. It’s no wonder the church is having credibility problems. These sins don’t stay hidden forever, and as I write this I am mindful of my shortcomings. This recognition has made me more sympathetic and cautious in offering criticism to those who are genuinely seeking to live a better life, but “slip and fall” along the way.

There is an appropriate way to deal with sin. It has to do with confession. It’s not easy to do, which is the main reason we choose to hide our transgressions. The cycle of Genesis 3 played itself out in Achan’s actions and subsequently appears in ours as well: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Genesis 3.6). The result of this action was fear, as Adam responded to God’s first question “Where are you?” with “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (v.9).

I saw. I desired (lusted). I took. I ate. I hid. It’s the same formula at work today, and it impacts each and every one of us.

I’ve been given some thought to Joshua’s question to Achan, “Why have you brought this trouble on us?” Achan’s actions had brought 36 deaths in the community and demoralized the morale of his people. His sin impacted an entire community as they were brought into “the Valley of Trouble” to confront Achan. The consequences were serious and terrible.

While many of us might not have heard about the Ashley Madison website (and that’s a good thing), there may be things that we are hiding which affect others in an adverse manner.

I’ve been a pastor for some time now, and I have seen the terrible affect that sin can have on a community of faith. Spiritual and emotional immaturity can be imported into the church. Sometimes pastors are to blame for this. We can displace the frustration and disappointment we have in our own lives onto the faith community, and at times the faith leaders. If not addressed properly, the level of trust will be diminished and the level of fear/anxiety will increase. There is always a correlation between trust and fear. The higher the trust, the lower the fear level. And vice versa.

For all the conversation about growth and the decline of the church, let us also take time to address the health of congregations. Let us recognize that our own attitudes, actions, and transgressions can have a positive or negative impact on the community of faith. And, may we have the courage to take the descent into the “valley of trouble” to confront our own sinfulness. Fortunately, we don’t have to remain there.There is forgiveness and restoration available through Christ. God’s people can come out of that valley with a greater appreciation for our own mortality and need for grace, and in so doing extend those blessings to others.

Harper Lee’s “Watchman” a timely work

Harper Lee’s new book is out. It only took half a century to get it.

There’s been a lot of controversy leading up to its release, particularly as it relates to how Atticus Finch is portrayed. I believe Gregory Peck’s portrayal of this character is one of the best performances in movie history. He makes Atticus come to life as the ideal father and lawyer who fights injustice during an extremely ugly period of our nation’s history. I’d like to remember him that way.

Apparently, that’s about to change. The new book, “Go Set a Watchman” has already set pre-release sales records and stimulated conversation about Atticus becoming a “racist” and attending KKK meetings (Ok, no more spoilers).

The setting of this story is two decades after “To Kill a Mockingbird” and has Scout returning to her hometown. She learns some difficult lessons along the way, and it looks like we will too.

The timing of this release couldn’t be more appropriate. Our nation is dealing with the recent racially charged events of the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and the subsequent removal of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse.

This is an eagerly expected work and guaranteed to generate a great deal of discussion. I would like to think this is going to be a good thing. However, many people don’t want their sentimental version of Atticus (as provided by Peck) to be tainted. I’ve seen numerous reactions on Facebook and Twitter, and recall one person stating “Harper Lee you ruined my life!”

I’m not sure how I’ll react upon reading the entire story. Very few books have affected our culture like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and I envision Lee’s second work to have a similar impact.

Mercer University professor Brett Younger wrote an article recently called “When the Klan came to our Revival.” He talks about how a young black student came to church with a white friend and was asked to leave. The next night the Klan showed up. Younger remembers a sign with the church name with the phrase “Everyone is welcome” underneath it. Younger says, “but everyone knew what that meant.”

This has been a great week for UHBC. We’ve hosted VBS and with that children of a variety of ages and ethnic backgrounds. It’s been encouraging to see that and not be concerned about someone in our church telling one of these precious children “we don’t want you here.”

I hope that our church is serious about “everyone is welcome” when it comes to people attending our church services. We need a (Baptist) church like that in the Ozarks. Let’s continue the practice of hospitality and being the presence of Christ in Springfield.

On that note, let me say thank you to ALL of you who helped with VBS this week. You should be tired, but it’s a good tired! You can check out some photos of the week on our church’s Facebook page.

Finally, my family and I will be on vacation this week. I appreciate Drs. Bob Perry and Mike Haynespreaching in my absence these next Sundays. This Wednesday, Dr. Brad Arnold will be handling the program. We are blessed to have such talented individuals part of our church family. I know you will be supportive and attentive to their efforts

Let the Children Come

everestvbs.1“Let the little children come. . .”

Those were Jesus’ words to his disciples when they tried to keep them away. Actually, even before saying those words, Jesus brought the children close to him. It’s a beautiful image of Jesus, as he is surrounded by the least and often overlooked of his day (Luke 18:15-17 NIV).

I’ve heard people describe children as “little angels.” I can appreciate the cuteness factor, depending on the age of the child. But, Jesus doesn’t get sentimental with children or talk about their goodness quotient. He does, however, refer to them as an object lesson as it relates to how persons ought to relate to the Kingdom of God. And, it must have surprised his disciples. After all, they had Jesus on a schedule and these children were taking up valuable time. They weren’t doing a good job with crowd control and it was frustrating them. They thought this situation was doing the same to Jesus too, but what he did and what he said showed them otherwise.

Vacation Bible School starts next week at University Heights Baptist Church. The building is being transformed into the snow related “Everest” theme. It takes a great deal of effort to put on such a presentation, and fortunately we have the man and woman power to get us ready. I’m also glad that our people pull together and don’t stress out too much over the decorations. Sometimes we have to move things around to create an environment conducive for learning.

Children are among the most neglected and vunerable in our world. This is true even in our community. The Springfield Public Schools provides information about the number of students on free or reduced lunch, and the numbers are staggering. It is especially troubling to realize that for many of these students, were it not for meals being offered at school, they would not eat. When school is in session, they can anticipate at least two meals a day. During the summer, however, the circumstances are different. Our church is becoming more educated about these needs with the intent to help our neighborhood elementary school. Many of these students face the triple threat of hunger, hygiene, and health issues. The need is great.Let

I don’t think we can approach church work the same as it has been. Perhaps the social and economic needs have been present for a long time, but it seems nowadays there are greater difficulties and churches are facing the realities of their neighborhoods with their eyes open to them.

Jesus affirmed children and said that adults can learn something extremely important from them. He said, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18.17 NIV).

There are many things children cannot do, but the one thing they can do really well is receive. Children are great receivers. Jesus knew that, and he also knew that adults have problems with this aspect of life. We prefer to see how well we measure up in comparison to others. This is probably why Luke positioned this incident between the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, and the encounter with the rich young ruler. The behavior of children as they put themselves in a receiving posture goes counter to those who think they measure up on their own.

Of course, the Bible does admonish us to give. As Frederick Buechner once wrote, “It’s not only more blessed to give than to receive, it’s also a lot easier.”

Children face many pressures in our world. Although written decades ago, David Elkind’s The Hurried Child remains an important resource in working with and understanding children. The subtitle of his work is “Growing Up Too Fast, Too Soon.” Elkind writes, “If child-rearing necessarily entails stress, then by hurrying children to grow up or by treating them as adults, we hope to remove a portion of our burden of worry and anxiety and to enlist our children’s aid in carrying the load. . . yet we do our children harm if we hurry them through childhood.”

Those disciples were in a hurry, and as a result wanted to hurry those children along and get them away from Jesus. I think we need to be careful that we don’t fall into that trap as well.

In one of my earlier pastorates, I had a woman come to me and make a comment about my family. She was unhappy with the amount of time I was spending on church people and attending social functions. At that time, my daughter was very little and I was trying to balance being a dad with being a husband and pastor. From this woman’s perspective, I wasn’t doing a very good job with the last duty. She said, “Your family is hurting your ministry.”

That comment was made over 15 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday.

I don’t remember exactly what I said to her, but I do recall how I felt. I got upset at her critique but at the same time renewed my commitment to my wife and daughter. From that experience I learned that my family is my ministry. They are going to be with me a lot longer than any group of church people will.

We adults, especially parents, struggle with the balance of being at work and at home. We constantly wrestle with the amount of time we spend with our children. What we don’t need to do is “hinder” the children from reaching Jesus, like those disciples were doing. It is through our love and actions that children see and learn about Jesus.

That’s what I hope happens at VBS next week. The children are coming. Let’s do all we can to get them to Jesus so he can touch their lives. In so doing, let us also be grateful that at some point our lives someone else helped us get to Jesus too.

The Wall of Separation

Walter Shurden, in the classic Baptist primer “Four Fragile Freedoms, ” said that “Christians have to work hard at distinguishing between pietism and patriotism, assessing critically where one begins and the other ends. When the cross of Jesus is wrapped in the flag of any nation, danger, if not downright heresy, is close by” (52).

I do my best to keep a nice yard. I don’t want to be OCD about it, but it is a source of pride and one of the few things that I can do and look back at say that it’s finished (at least for a while). As I was mowing the backyard the other day, I noticed that there were weeds and grass poking through the fence. It was coming from my neighbor’s yard. The fence is not close to his house nor is he within the subdivision itself, so it is “out of sight and out of mind.” I’ve had to continually monitor that fence in an attempt to keep what is on his side of the fence from coming over to mine. It’s an ongoing effort.

This kind of struggle with weeds between two lawns is a good analogy for what is taking place in our nation. But, it certainly isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last. With the July 4th celebration on the horizon, it’s a good opportunity to reflect upon our freedoms and liberties as American citizens but more importantly as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

The relationship between church and state is an important one. Perhaps the most pivotal biblical passage comes from Matthew 22:15-22. The Pharisees and Herodians, religious and political parties of the time, came together with the intention of tricking Jesus with the question “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Ceasar or not?” I find it insightful that the Pharisees were patriots of their nation and hated paying taxes, whereas the Herodians appreciated the status quo and supported the government. These two groups despised one another yet agreed that taxes was a pivotal issue. At least they could agree upon that. Ordinarily they wouldn’t have anything to do with each other. However, there was one thing they both despised more than the other, and that was Jesus. If Jesus said “yes pay your taxes” then he would have been labeled a traitor. If he would have said, “no don’t pay taxes” he would have been accused of treason against the government. It was a clever ploy.

George W. Truett, once pastor of FBC Dallas, preached a famous sermon on the steps of the National Capitol Building in May 1920. He said that Jesus’ words about rendering to Ceasar things that were Ceasar’s, and things that are God’s to God were “one of the most revolutionary and history making utterances that ever fell from those lips divine. That utterance, once for all, marked divorcement of the church and state.” Jesus’ remarkable words have been utilized by Baptists in the development of a “separation” between government and the church.

Baptists have been at the forefront of the separation ideal. The phrase “separation of church and state” was not commonly used when the Constitution and Bill of RIghts was written. The concept was there, however. The “wall of separation” origins can be linked to 17th Century Baptist Roger Williams and later attributed to Thomas Jefferson. He wrote a letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association, indicating that he believed the 1st amendment erected a wall of separation between the church and state. It has been used by the Supreme Court as well.

We are going to continue to have skirmishes relating to the separation concept, and both the establishment and free exercise clauses will come into play.

County clerks are refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay couples out of religious convictions. I haven’t heard any clerks refusing to grant licenses to persons who have been divorced multiple times out of religious conviction though. The Bible does record God’s view on the subject “I hate divorce” and Jesus’ words “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” So, is this a religious liberty issue or an act of discrimination? What is our posture relating to Romans 13 giving deference to the government? We can also cite Revelation 13 about opposing the government as well. Then we return to the words of Jesus in Matthew 22.

We’ve been here before. Until 1920, women weren’t even allowed to vote. It wasn’t until 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) that “separate but equal” was ruled unconstitutional and effectively ended segregation. It’s hard to imagine, but an owner of a restaurant could refuse service to an African-American and be within their rights to do so. Until 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in the United States. These couples could not be granted a marriage license, and I would envision there would be those who would have refused to grant them one based on their own views.

One of the more recent religious liberty cases relates to Bob Jones University. BJU banned interracial dating in the 1950s and did not admit a black student until the 1970s. They lost their tax exempt status in 1983 because the IRS ruled that their school policies violated federal law. BJU held these views because of their position and interpretation of the Bible. Interestingly, BJU dropped their ban on interracial dating in 2000.

The Supreme Court has ruled on marriage equality. The next area for debate will be that of religious liberty. Churches and their ministers have concerns over the implications of this ruling, but I believe the more significant areas will be relating to institutions who have certain convictions based upon their religious views. Time will tell how this turns out.

Not everyone is supportive of the concept of “separation of church and state.” Opponents lament the nation’s declining morals and say the only way to get back to God is to do away with it. I’m reminded of what Jesus decided to do when confronted with a similar temptation.

After his baptism, he went out into the wilderness to endure a series of temptations which would essentially answer the question “What kind of Messiah are you going to be?”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give to you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matthew 4.8-10 NIV).

Jesus could have chosen to use earthly power, politics, and position to implement his mission. He could have chosen to “get things done” through natural means, but instead his response was to tell Satan to get away from him.

Religious liberty is a precious right and we need to do our best to fight for it. We need to learn from our history and view our Bible and culture through the lens of what Jesus taught and how he lived. Let us be consistent in the interpretation and application of Scripture, while remembering that  “this world is not my home.”

In the meantime, I’m going to continue keeping an eye on that fence.

Charleston and the Price of Forgiveness

I’m continuing a sermon series on the scripture themes from VBS this year. This Sunday, I’ll focus on one of the last sayings of Jesus from the cross. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34 NIV).

He could have been referring to those Roman soldiers who were carrying out their orders. They were the ones to actually nail him to the cross, and that would certainly be an obvious choice. Maybe he was talking about the religious leaders who put him in that position in the first place. They accused him of being a revolutionary, telling people not to pay their taxes to Ceasar, and claiming to be a King. Along the way  they accused Jesus of “stirring up the people.”

Well, that is what Jesus does.

The timing of the passage comes at a good time, for obvious reasons. We’ve all seen and heard the stories of horror and hatred that were aimed at those nine persons in a Bible Study last Wednesday night. The gunman sat among them for about an hour, received their hospitality, and then proceeded to stand up and start shooting them. He said he wanted to start “a race war.”

What is even more startling than the act of violence has been the reactions of the Emmanuel AME church, especially the families of the victims. They confronted the killer, not with words of hatred, but with words of forgiveness. One person said, “You’ve hurt me. But, I forgive you.”

Forgiveness. You’ve hurt me, but I forgive you.

With all the racial unrest that has been present in our country, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if there had been violence in the streets of Charleston. Many people may have expected it and were disappointed. During his Father’s Day message, Rev. Norvel Goff said, “Lot’s of folks expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot. Well, they just don’t know us. We have shown the world how we as a group of people can come together and pray and work out things that need to be worked out.”

The only thing more striking than the actions of that gunman has been the reactions of that community and congregation. And, what is also notable is how surprising their response has been, especially when we are conditioned to see violence breed violence. The racial tensions that have been on display in Ferguson and Baltimore could have been evidenced with similar behavior in Charleston.

Forgiveness is a powerful thing. It requires an acknowledgment of pain, and a decision to give up the right to get even. It is absorbing all the pain and hurt, and making an intentional effort to respond in love. These families are responding as Jesus would have them (and us) to do. Many unbelievers do not understand how these victims could respond in this way. The sad thing is that many Christians are also surprised at this. We are taught to forgive one another, but when forgiveness is actually extended, we can become angry at the idea. It’s one thing to talk about forgiveness in theory, another to put it into practice.

I have returned from a Baptist gathering last week, and was challenged along with other participants to “build bridges.” The importance of creating avenues of service into our communities, discovering meaningful ministries, loving our neighbors of differing ethic and social backgrounds, and extending hospitality to those who need it. These are not new concepts. In fact, they have been around a very long time. Yet, it’s important for the church to be reminded of our purpose, which is to share Christ with those around us. Sometimes that requires words. Sometimes it requires actions.

One of the actions I think needs to occur is the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house. I realize that politicians will use the shooting as an opportunity for political posturing, which can result in great form but little substance. And, while the flag itself did not kill anyone, it has become a symbol of hatred and divisiveness. I can appreciate the history aspect of the “stars and bars” and agree that following generations need to be educated about what happened over 150 years ago. Let the stories be told. But, let the flag be shown in a museum rather than flying over the state capitol. Removal of this symbol would be a good step forward in bridging the racial divide for the state and the nation.

The Emmanuel AME church has shown the nation how to respond when hatred strikes at those who are most loved. Their pastor was killed doing what he usually did on Wednesday nights, and what many pastors do at that time: leading Bible Study and showing hospitality to a stranger. That’s what he was supposed to do. That’s what we’re supposed to do also.

It’s one thing to forgive someone when they say something to hurt your feelings. These occasions can make it hard to move on with our lives, we can become “stuck” at some moment in the past. We can feel like hanging on to our pain and feel justified at harboring grudges toward the offending persons. It’s natural to desire revenge for injustice. But, this kind of response doesn’t cause our world to sit up and take notice like the actions of that congregation in South Carolina. The world needs to know there is an alternative to violence. And, it isn’t more violence. It isn’t burning down buildings or looting stores. It isn’t in forgetting about what has happened either. It should result in incorporating that narrative of pain into our lives today. It should help us be sympathetic to those who are oppressed and hurting as well.

Jesus offered words of forgiveness because “they don’t know what they are doing.” I wonder how that resonates with those of us who do know what we are doing. Forgiveness is costly. It cost Jesus his own life, and that example of forgiveness should stir us as his people to do the same to those who hurt us. Besides, there are times when we’ve all done things to hurt someone else.

Forgiveness is a wonderful topic to talk about on a Sunday morning. It’s even more beautiful when it is demonstrated for the entire world to see. Justice needs to be done, to be sure. As pastor Goff said, “there is a time and place for everything.” Justice and forgiveness aren’t mutually exclusive. There are consequences to behavior. However, let this season of forgiveness which has been ushered in by our Charleston friends be entered into by all of us who claim the name of Christ. I cannot imagine the depth of pain and grief these families are going through right now. Soon, the media attention will go away and they will be left to go through holidays and birthdays without their loved ones. Let us grieve with them and pray for them. Let us also remember honor their example in our own communities. The world is watching to see what we’re going to do.

CBF General Assembly comes to Dallas

Baptists know a little bit about Dallas.

Decades ago, the Southern Baptist Convention met with more than 40,000 messengers coming together at the height of the “conservative resurgence.” Here is one perspective provided by the publications arm of the SBC.

Nowadays, it difficult to get 4,000 Baptists to show up at the convention meeting. The same is true for the CBF General Assembly or ABC Biennial meetings. Times have changed in that regard. Thanks to a decreasing interest in denominational matters from a younger generation, along with the convenience of live streaming of these events, have resulted in folks staying closer to home. There are times I don’t want to attend meetings with five Baptists, let alone several hundred.

I was too young to be directly involved in the denominational warfare that occurred between moderates and conservatives. I do know that the timing of the conflict couldn’t have been worse from a missions standpoint. Dr.Keith Parks, then President of the Foreign Mission Board, was hoping to launch a global missions initiative called “Bold Mission Thrust.” This is old news for us who came along during the conflict or soon afterwards. But, time has proven that the dangers of liberalism that were supposed to deter baptisms and growth were unfounded. Southern Baptists are wrestling with their own problems relating to decreasing membership in their churches. Hopefully, things like cooperation over social issues like predatory lending with take precedence over which ones of us believe the Bible more than others.

It’s been several years since I’ve attended a CBF Assembly. So, I am looking forward to making my way to the Lone Star state to listen and learn about how things are going among us in the CBF. I don’t look at how many people show up as an indicator of interest, for the reasons I mentioned above. But, it should be encouraging to connect with friends and make new ones. There’s usually a lot of good energy at these gatherings and gratitude for being part of the Kingdom. My primary hope is that renewal is ahead and that we can truly be in the business of “forming together.” I would also like to know more about what that phrase means too.

There is one concern that I have moving forward, and that is our own global missions effort will be derailed by controversial social issues. It’s good that these issues can be discussed, hopefully in a respectful and attentive manner. I pray that that we can agree that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the primary thread which keeps CBF churches together. This may be easier said than done. But, the effort is definitely worth it  and there is a lot at stake.

I’m looking forward to good things. See you in Dallas.


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