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In God We Trust: 2016 edition

A few days ago I learned that one of my fellow pastor friends agreed to serve on a political committee to get one of his party’s candidates elected president of the United States. My friend is currently serving as a pastor of a local church. I am disappointed that he is taking such a prominent role in influencing people to vote for a certain candidate.

This sort of thing has gotten ministers in trouble before. On more than one occasion candidates have not been completely”vetted.” When unflattering revelations about the candidate are revealed, it makes those pastors who endorse them look foolish. It is even more problematic when pastors espouse biblical values yet endorse those who have a track record of doing the opposite. I believe this confuses the people in the pew who are being challenged to live holy and effective lives for Christ.

It’s also made me more aware that in certain states, the divide between religion and politics has become almost non-existent.

Each one of us has an opinion and can participate in the political process. However, for ministers, there is an inherit danger in aligning oneself with a presidential hopeful. This is even more significant when the candidate has a long track record of character flaws and has made harsh and questionable remarks about people of non-Christian backgrounds. It’s also troubling when the candidate has somehow developed recent proclamations of faith that seemingly coincide with his effort to earn the nomination of a political party.

We’re not electing a pastor of the United States. We’re electing a president of the United States. Still, it baffles me how ministers can choose to jettison their own moral and theological views for the purpose of endorsing political candidates. This is not aimed or limited to Democrats or Republicans.

Some ministers, especially the more visible ones, feel the necessity and cannot resist the fascination in endorsing a candidate and all the publicity that this generates. This practice is dangerous and ministers are setting themselves up to be disappointed. Politicians seek to get people to vote for them, and will frequently say and do anything to accomplish that end.

This realization was demonstrated well in the television show “The West Wing.” In the episode, “In God We Trust,” the Republican candidate Arnold Vinick is having problems with his own political party who expect him to take on religious views to satisfy their concerns. Ironically, this political problem was caused by his Democratic rival who affirmed theistic evolution during a town hall meeting at an elementary school.

When asked by reporters whether he would attend the church of a well-known pastor to gain his support, Vinnick responds:  “I don’t see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government. And I want to warn everyone in the press and all the voters out there if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to. They won’t all lie to you but a lot of them will. And it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes. So, every day until the end of this campaign, I’ll answer any question anyone has on government, But if you have a question on religion, please go to church.”

Christians need to get involved in the political process to enact positive change in our country. There any number of ways to do this. However, I think our primary task as ministers is to enact Kingdom change in our world. Our people need to know that the most important cause we have is leading people to Christ.

The other thought about this political business is that the church in general is losing influence in the world. It’s disappointing yet not unsurprising to see prominent pastors bless one candidate over the other. I believe this alienates persons in the pew who hold different political views, and it also exaggerates the influence that pastors have in getting people to vote a certain way.

It’s important to learn about the presidential candidates and the issues of our day. But, pastors should be careful about how they utilize their influence. We don’t want to exchange our eternal calling for one that lasts only for a political season.

 

 

 

 

 

A Modest Hope for 2016

lucy baptism

I have two teenagers in the house now. And they both have birthdays in December. Cally is 18, and now Lucy is beginning her ‘ager’ years at 13 (the photo is when I baptized her a few years ago!).Seeing both my daughters as teenagers give me pause to think about what kind of world they are going to inherit. I also am keenly aware that Matt, at 11, is coming along all to quickly as well.

This upcoming year is an election year. This will mark the beginning of a new president taking us into the next four or eight years. But, there’s also other matters to consider.

One of the things I have learned (re-learned) is that the church has a great capacity to enact change without the government’s involvement. There are numerous occasions in which I’d like our politicians to do more and say less. Yet, the same could be true of churches as well.

This past year has been a good one, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. I’ve done my share of funerals and seen our church family grieve the absence of loved ones. It’s difficult to absorb the loss of friends who have been part of the church for decades. This ongoing season of death and dying can have an adverse impact on the body of Christ. It leaves pastors and people discouraged as they see fewer people sitting in the pew.

When our church engaged in a 40 day period of prayer earlier this year, I asked God to show me and our people what it was He wanted us to do. That season of intercession has concluded, but there are lessons still being learned after that informative time. I pray that these lessons will translate into hopes for a new year.

First of all, the Holy Spirit is still involved in the world. I hope I can tune in to what He is doing all around me. He is not out of ideas and is still creating new ways to influence the world for Christ. I’ve been surprised at the ways that our church has been able to make a positive impact on persons in our community. I would never have imagined that we could get involved in payday loan debt relief and provide a model for other churches in how this could be done. I am so grateful to the credit union across the street from our building for their willingness to work with us on this issue. This is one example of how the church can do more and say less when it comes to improving the lives of the poor and oppressed around us.

I’ve also been thrilled to see the Holy Spirit convict individuals about their need for Christ. It has been rewarding to baptize men and women into the fellowship of believers. There’s nothing more powerful than when an adult comes to Christ. The gospel still makes a difference, and I am thankful to be a small part of that process of transformation.

Second, I am learning to “bloom where I’m planted.” I hope I can focus on doing my best and let the Lord handle the rest. I enjoy cultivating friendships over a period of years, yet know anxiety is just around the corner. Our church, like many others, is an intergenerational community that is continually adjusting to changes brought about by aging and death. This can create a sadness for long time members. However, it’s also exciting to see younger individuals and families find a home among us. We’ll continue to show hospitality and look for creative ways to share Christ.

Sometimes it’s difficult to explain to persons who have been in the church a very long time how the world has changed. This has an impact on the place of the church in the lives of boomers and millennials. Rachel Held Evans described the new normal in this way: “As nearly every denomination in the United States is facing declining membership and waning influence, Christians may need to get used to the idea of measuring our significance by something other than money, fame or power.” I agree with her sentiment. Our effectiveness as the church isn’t always about how many people show up for an hour or two on Sunday. We have to discover more accurate metrics to describe whether or not the church is effective in its work in a 21st century culture.

Finally, I hope I can find balance and stay healthy. I want to keep things in perspective and keep my priorities straight. I may never be the pastor of the largest church, but I can make a difference in the lives of those around me, beginning with those in my own house. This will mean showing concern for others while realizing I can’t fix all the problems that are brought to my attention.

Pete Scazzero stresses the importance of living your own life and not someone else’s. He puts it a better way: “To quit living someone else’s life requires not trying to run other ­people’s lives. It means not overfunctioning – doing for others what they can and should do for themselves. Controlling the lives of others takes time and energy; it also takes the focus off God’s call for your own life.”

That’s great advice. I hope I can implement that, because it’s not easy to be self-differentiated person. It’s difficult to distinguish between success and faithfulness, and knowing when to let go and allow the Holy Spirit to take care of things. So much of who we are can be tethered to what we do, while this is often reality, it is not always healthy.

Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the Hope of the world. Our value is found in Him. I hope I can be an authentic witness and be part of a church that shares that desire as well. There’s never been a more important time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Surprise of Christmas

Christmas is about surprises.

Of course, I like the kind of surprises  that end of up being good for me. Usually that means it helps my situation become more enjoyable. Some surprises don’t end that way.

When doing my taxes last year, I counted all three of my children as exemptions. I do this every year. I’m usually pretty good at figuring out my taxes, but several months afterward I received a letter from the IRS saying I owed them $1000! Needless to say, this was not the surprise I was hoping for but owing that exact amount sounded odd to me. Upon reading the letter, I discovered that my oldest daughter could no longer be counted on my taxes in that way. She had her 17th birthday during the year.

Like any good father, I rebuked her for getting older and costing me $1000.

There are, on the other hand, surprises that can change a person’s life and renew her faith in humankind. This happened to Helen Johnson, a woman living in a small Alabama town who made a mistake in a tough situation.

Helen and her family had gone without food for two days, and she went to the Dollar General store with $1.25 to buy a carton of eggs. Upon getting to the store, she realized that wasn’t enough to purchase the eggs. Helen made $120 disability for herself, two daughters, niece and two grandchildren. In desperation she stuffed five eggs in her pocket. As she walked out, she was stopped by an associate of the store who called the police. Helen admitted stealing the eggs to the police officer, who told her to remain by the door. Helen waited for handcuffs, but but instead the officer came out with a carton of eggs.

In addition to this kind act, the officer took her to police headquarters and signed her up for the Toy Drive for her children. He later took her two loads of groceries and got her help from a nearby church as well.

Upon receiving these tremendous acts of kindness and seeing her pantry full, Helen broke down in tears. She said, “The last time I saw my house this full, I was 12 years old and staying with grandmother.”

Surprises can be a good thing.

I can’t imagine anyone expecting the Son of God to arrive on earth like he did over two thousand years ago.  Read the gospel accounts, especially those of Matthew and Luke. God chose unassuming, regular people to be responsible for bringing God incarnate into the world.  There didn’t appear to be anything special about Mary and Joseph. There wasn’t anything especially beautiful about the place where Jesus was born. It wasn’t a prestigious audience that first heard the birth announcement about Jesus’ arrival. The whole situation seemed unlikely and undeserving for the Son of God.

The words of angel must have surprised those first hearers: “This will be a sign unto you: You will find a baby wrapped in clothes, and lying in a manger” (Luke 2.12 NIV). Shepherds. What an undignified, undervalued congregation!

I enjoy Barbara Brown Taylor’s description of the nativity scene: The hole in the heavens had closed up and the only music came from the bar at the inn. One of the cows stepped on a chicken and the resulting racket made the baby cry. As she leaned over to pick him up, Mary started crying too and when Joseph tried to comfort her she told him she wanted her mother. If she had just married a nice boy from Nazareth, she said, she would be back home where she belonged instead of competing with sheep for a place to sleep (Home By Another Way, 23).

There had to be at least some humor in that situation.

There isn’t any record of that exchange taking place, but I have to think that Mary and Joseph were overwhelmed by the journey and the circumstances. It was surpassed only by the distance God went to arrive in fragile, human form on a planet in desperate need of hope and a surprise that would make a difference.

I’ve been a pastor for 20 plus years now, and believe that churches need to surprised on occasion as well. That’s what the Holy Spirit is good at doing, and that is evident on several occasions in the birth narratives. This is also reinforced by the adult Jesus when talking to Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3.8).

We can’t program the work of the Holy Spirit. Like many pastors, I have read and told the birth narrative countless times. It’s easy to allow the words to become repetitious and for our heart to become callous to its meaning.

My prayer for myself first and for all of us this Christmas is that something will take us off guard, maybe even surprise us a little bit, as we get closer to the little town of Bethlehem once again.  I am hopeful that the sign first seen by the shepherds would create wonder in our hearts once again.

May we allow the Holy Spirit to move among us and remind us that God knows who we are and that there is a purpose in all things. And for this reason, we ought not be afraid.

 

 

 

 

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.

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